The Special Librarian: Results from a Survey of MLS and MBA Graduates

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The Special Librarian: Results from a Survey of MLS and MBA Graduates

* Data is presented from a study of special librarians--who identify themselves as special librarians either by title or by type of user--taken from a larger survey of graduates of the University of Pittsburgh MLS program. These data reveal important new information about special librarianship that is based solely on the responses to questions about demographics, career patterns and work histories, and attitudinal issues made by several hundred active practitioners across the country. This study of MLS graduates was paralleled by a study of Pitt MBA graduates of the same era, and the comparisons between business and library professionals offer additional insights for our understanding of the contemporary special librarian.

This study presents information on a large sample of special librarians and compares them with a group of other librarians and with a group of business professionals, all of whom received masters degrees from the same university during the same time period. The comparison of special librarians with both groups is of interest because some special librarians, particularly corporate ones, have felt a closer identification with business professionals (MBAs) than with their colleagues in other areas of library science.

To date, special librarianship has not had much information about its practitioners that describes them both in demographic and attitudinal terms. The best data available have been the several surveys of members of the Special Libraries Association that SLA itself has done.[1] However, critics of these surveys point to the fact the SLA members are not always representative of the larger community of practitioners who are special librarians. They observe correctly that certain segments of the special libraries population are under-represented in SLA member surveys. In particular, these critics cite the absence of those whose primary professional association is to one of the subject-specialized organizations such as the Medical Library Association, the American Association of Law Librarians, the Music Library Association, the American Theological Library Association, the Art Libraries Society of North America, etc. These critics also note the absence of those representatives for whom affiliation with a type-of-library or type-of-activity organization is more rewarding, such as the academic special librarians who join the Association of College and Research Libraries, or the media librarians who affiliate with the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, or the computer-oriented professionals who choose to join the American Society for Information Science. Some even argue that surveys of members of any professional organization are suspect because they presuppose that an individual or that individual's library can afford the dues and time associated with professional association membership.

A data-based understanding of the special librarian is more likely to emerge from a survey of special librarians not tied to membership in a particular association. Such a study offers a broader and less biased base from which to describe the special librarian, and might thereby refute the critics of SLA surveys.

To that end, a 1986 survey of nearly 1,000 graduates of the MLS program of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Library and Information Science gathered data about background, professional work, and attitudes. Data selected from the survey responses can be separated by both self-reported title and by reported type of user, so that those who were working as special librarians or as specialized information professionals can be separately analyzed.

The study of these MLS graduates was paralleled by a study of University of Pittsburgh MBA graduates of the same era, and comparisons with that group offer some additional insights into the world of professional work. …