Special Libraries in Transition: What to Do If the Axe Is Falling; Closing Libraries Doesn't Always Mean Closing Opportunities for Information Professionals. the Facility May Change, but the Need Remains

By Schachter, Debbie | Information Outlook, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Special Libraries in Transition: What to Do If the Axe Is Falling; Closing Libraries Doesn't Always Mean Closing Opportunities for Information Professionals. the Facility May Change, but the Need Remains


Schachter, Debbie, Information Outlook


Recent high profile library closures in a variety of industries have led me to consider again the question of what is the future of special libraries. Moreover, what is the impact on the future of special librarians? These questions have been discussed and pondered for some time. Indeed, we all have heard the comments of people who enjoy announcing the end of libraries with each new technological breakthrough or development in communication.

Special libraries have always had a different trajectory from public and academic libraries. Organizations of many kinds need information services, but the security of corporate libraries sometimes seems to rest upon the whims of a new CEO or financial management team. In high-profile situations, the closing of a special library may cause members of the profession to protest. More often, though, special libraries disappear without much notice other than through a posting on a local listserv or discussion among the local special library community--not surprising, considering that most people (often including other employees of the organization itself) have little awareness of their own library.

In the 17 years I've been involved with special libraries, I have worked in a couple of organizations that eventually closed their libraries (in both cases some time after I had left these positions), and I know from experience that there is a trend to special library closures that rises and falls, generally with changing economic fortunes.

Pressures of direct costs to run the library are usually the greatest consideration for executives when choosing to close a special library. Corporate mergers, too, lead to the amalgamations of various departments and functions, often including the special library. The overhead in an expensive downtown tower often makes a large physical library a clear target for reduction if not outright closure, not to mention the salaries of the usually non-billable staff.

And, as well all know, many individuals believe that they are capable of finding all the information they need themselves, from free and even fee-based end-user systems. These individuals and organizations only learn over time that the effectiveness of organizational decision-making declines with the diminished effectiveness of their information gathering. Sometimes, when a library is slated for closure, a few library champions who understand the true value of these services are able to help the special librarian either retain a smaller physical library or ensure the continuation of some form of library services.

After the lobbying and the work of library supporters to change the determined fate of a library, it doesn't always mean that the librarian or library staff is out of work. Frequently, libraries may be officially "shut down," yet the staff of the library may be retained for its valuable skills. Staff may be moved into various other departments--marketing, research, IT, to name a few--or may simply be requested to continue their work in a virtual library setting. The physical materials themselves often seem to be of little concern to the decision makers, but generally much more so to the employees who make regular use of the materials.

What about the perceptions that people are now able to conduct their own quality research, with access to more resources than ever before? In a recent speech at a library association conference aimed at public and academic libraries, Bill Crowley, Ph.D. of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University, suggests that "information intermediaries, including librarians who see themselves as such, are passe. We are in an age of information self-service. (Don't let Google and the Penny pinchers Get You Down: Defending (or Redefining) Libraries and Librarianship in the Age of Technology, BC Library Conference Annual 2007). While this is may not be a new thought, it is something that has become almost wholly accepted as fact by most people today, including the people who run the organizations served by special libraries. …

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