Author’s Corner: Special Libraries: A Survival Guide

How does one become a special librarian, anyway?  What does it take to get there?  Once there, what are the issues to face? If you’ve ever asked these questions, you might be interested in this new book by James M. Matarazzo and Toby Pearlstein, Special Libraries: A Survival Guide.  They’ve very kindly provided the excerpt below, so you can get a feel for the content.

Special Libraries a Survival Guide 

Through a series of case studies of corporate library reductions and closures Matarazzo and Pearlstein …. suggest key strategies, tactics and survival tools that all types of special library managers can use to minimize their chances of becoming a victim and maximize their chances of succeeding by contributing to the success of their employer.  They underscore the collection of data as a survival tool.  Additionally, they identify what needs to be taught to students currently enrolled in Library and Information Science programs to give them a leg up in their careers.

Excerpt from Chapter 8:  Educating Special Librarians:  “The Past is Prologue”
by James M. Matarazzo, and Toby Pearlstein.

A “special library” is not an entity; it exists as an integral part of a highly specialized kind of organization whether it be an industrial corporation, research, or service institution, a trade association, a government agency or a museum. Since it exists to serve the members of that organization, it is necessary to provide in the training program an orientation to the structure, functions and activities of the varying types of organizations.  (Ruth S. Leonard, 1950)

Addressing survival lessons for special libraries brings up more questions than answers.  What we have learned is that there is no one “right way” to be successful as an information professional in a corporate or other type of special library.  Frankly, though, it was pretty straightforward to come up with several wrong ways to make being successful even more of a challenge.  Arriving at the right ways to succeed and thereby ensure survival is more difficult.  Nonetheless, we do firmly believe there is one generic formula that makes success more likely, strategic alignment with your parent organization or potential employer.  How you go about “doing the math” depends totally on figuring out how to achieve that alignment.  It might be useful to … look at the roots of how someone who wants to be an information professional in a special library would achieve that goal.  This led us to review some of our initial questions about the likelihood of special library or librarian survival in the context of library education, basically going back to the source of how information professionals learn about the profession and how to pursue it specifically when working in a specialized environment (corporate, medical, government, legal, etc.).  Here is where we might find the root cause of many of the obstacles to success with which special libraries and the information professionals who work in them struggle.

Plainly stated, the hypothesis of the authors is that if you want to be an information professional in a specialized environment…rather than in a public, school, or undergraduate academic library, or a scholar of library and information science, most…MLS programs provide little or at best inadequate preparation.  Graduates, therefore, especially in times of economic downturn, are left with a significant gap in relevant marketable skills that prospective employers in specialized organizations will find compelling.

[A] situation of fewer jobs and limited preparation is exacerbated when the client population being served has an increasingly sophisticated information literacy level so that an information professional must be prepared to add value beyond the basics almost immediately upon being employed.  This is nearly impossible, even with a subject specialty bachelor’s or master’s degree, unless relevant specialized courses have been taken during the MLS program.

…[T]he core concern still remains true: whether or not there will be enough [MLS] graduates who “understand the value system unique to special librarianship” (and correspondingly who know that working in a special library is quite different from public or academic service) who will be qualified to fill those jobs that do remain….

Some of the most helpful guidance a prospective special librarian can receive to define what skills they will need to succeed in a specialized library environment comes in the form of “competencies documents” developed by various information professional groups.  Associations such as the SLA [Special Libraries Association], AALL (American Association of Law Libraries), MLA (Medical Library Association), SCIP (Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals), and specialized sections of ALA have published such documents in order to provide guidance for individuals as well as library school curriculum committees.

A much more dynamic integration of the various competency documents into library school curricula and with a continually reinforced understanding of the value of aligning with an employer’s vision and mission incorporated into coursework, our profession can reinforce the value special librarians can contribute across all sectors, especially in for-profit organizations, and can create a more pragmatic path to employment for MLS graduates.  These ideas may well be too blue sky for the realities of today’s library school budgets and employer appetites for hiring special librarians.  Regardless of the prognostications of some, however, the authors do not believe that special librarians, particularly in profit-based organizations, are headed for terminal irrelevance.  With that baseline in mind, more discussion resulting in concrete actions around these topics could finally lead to making some progress….

James Matarazzo



James M. Matarazzo, PhD, is dean and professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College, Boston, MA.  His previous books include Closing the Corporate Library: Case Studies on the Decision-making Process; Corporate Library Excellence; and Knowledge and Special Libraries.  He holds a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh School of Information.  Matarazzo is a Fellow of the Special Libraries Association.


Toby Pearlstein


Toby Pearlstein, PhD, is retired director of global information services for Bain & Company, Inc., a strategic management consulting firm.  She recently coauthored a series of articles in Searcher magazine on survival skills for information professionals.  Pearlstein holds a doctorate from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. She is a Fellow of the Special Libraries Association and a member of the SLA Hall of Fame.


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