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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > September 2020

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Vol. 40 No. 6 — September 2020

Special Libraries and the Information Services Lifecycle
by Terence K. Huwe

Perceiving a long-term information services lifecycle helps us tailor flexible services to organizations and workstyles as they exist today, rather than imposing outmoded ideas that have lost their edge.
This issue of   CIL  focuses on special libraries, where I’ve spent my library career—and whose future has been on my mind. Consequently, I am using my column space to assess the lifecycle of special library services over the long term. I use the word “lifecycle” explicitly, because just as there is an information lifecycle, there is also an information services lifecycle. The two lifecycles have many commonalities; they are both subject to hazards, politics, and environmental factors that may cause an early (and perhaps unexpected) demise. Even the most effective service models must be flexible to survive, but however flexible they might be, the firms and communities served may still evolve beyond reach. This cycle of constant change in special libraries may not be evident at first glance; indeed, many of us are too focused on the here and now even to consi­der the idea. 

But it is well worth consideration. Entrants to our profession often show up with a sense of the grandeur of libraries: their symbolic power as bastions of memory, research, and—not least—a sense of permanence. However, a career in special libraries teaches us that the location, the format, and the reach of our services are anything but permanent. In actuality, they are in constant flux as we follow the users and adapt to their needs. Fortunately, the news is not all grim and foreboding, and I will offer two forecasts on how contemporary special libraries can thrive in today’s decentralized workplaces and research environments.

Proximity and Status Matter Less

The information services lifecycle reveals how people value libraries over time—as well as how those values change. What used to matter over the long term can change both subtly and suddenly. For this reason, thinking about lifecycles helps us discern when big changes are imminent and possibly existential. For example, close proximity to researchers has always been absolutely crucial, and the benefits of proximity have yielded rapid growth in special libraries. Large universities have long regarded the library as the core of scholarly life, and they engaged in a multi-century building spree that produced palatial central research collections—as well as dozens of branch libraries.  

This urge to build carried over into professional life, including law, medicine, engineering, aerospace, regional history, and archives—essentially, in every field with resources to build. Special libraries flourished in response, offering mediated online searching, records management, and much more. High-touch research support adapted to and aligned with the real work of the firm. But the need for proximity has evolved: Most, if not all, newly established libraries are virtual. This has affected the services lifecycle: Libraries are “branded” not to space, but to the enterprising librarians who manage them—whether they are nearby or far away.  

Beyond proximity, status also mattered. A glorious, multilevel law library was often a must-see stop for law partners showing clients around. Some resembled the stately private libraries of English country houses, with coffered ceilings and fine woodwork. Medical and engineering libraries were equally prestigious. In these three fields and many others, daily dramas might play out as lawyers or clinicians in scrubs pursued vital information at the last moment, often engaging the full library staff in the hustle.

What Matters Now  

These close-at-hand staffers often became heroes to attorneys, doctors, engineers, and others because they were right there—and they knew how to help. But nowadays, online life trumps proximity and frees us to move around as needed. Those of us who sensed opportunity in the shift from proximity (as well as library space) have been “saving” library services through reinvention. This has extended their lifecycle and also transformed the special library into a test bed to grapple with continuous change.  

Nowadays, success often hinges on interpersonal and communication skills; those who can explain the search, access, and preservation processes that make up the lifecycle are leaders in innovation. We all know many such people. I joined the profession in 1986 as a second career, and I still remember what Nancy Lewis, a librarian at the San Francisco law offices of Cooley, LLP, told me during an interview: “The special library is the place to be, period.” Compensation and hard-won collegial respect for top-notch skills have proven her right in my book.

But lifecycles are fickle. Special libraries have been shutting down (or morph­ing into something new) for years. Proximity can now be re-created in a wide variety of ways, and the value of grand, ultra-modern library space as a status symbol is less compelling. At the same time, special librarians who have not effectively linked their services with evolving organizational goals face uncertain futures.  

What is worse is the blunt fact that powerful executives can simply refuse to believe in library futures, even after hearing the best pitches of our finest visionaries. Some of my friends on various college campuses see this for what is: change for change’s sake. Doing things over again and again masquerades as evidence of forward movement. Whether or not it produces any improvements matters less than the exercise in overturning tables—and those tables were often in the special library.

As far as I can tell, this is a universal problem and a key obstacle for the information services lifecycle. But here’s a hint on why I’m still an optimist: We’ve done well in many instances, and we have realized that we need to “brand” library service to us, not facilities. Telling local success stories in this vein has become a cornerstone of all professional conferences—and we need to hear about such success as much as possible.

Services: Everywhere for Everyone

For those of us in the trenches, emphasizing service over status and change over stability has yielded good results. But maintaining an organized plan is an ongoing task. Lifecycles all have a beginning, middle, and end. We would like to see our spaces and services go on forever, but directly facing the prospect of terminating library services accelerates the search for new forms of success. I find that all benchmarks now map to individuals offering information services, not physical proximity or the grandeur of library space.  

Special libraries—so true to their name—are organized around special skills and knowledge. To assist attorneys, you must know the law and legal research, and the same goes for medicine and all other fields. The entire task for special librarians who face losing their physical space is simply to let it go while preserving their reputation for effective research support. Confidence in the face of change encourages the discovery of new service models, which extends the lifecycle even as it morphs into new forms.  

Lifecycles, Recurring and Renewed

The library as a status symbol has had a long half-life. But the disappearance of library space has accelerated and is widely accepted as inevitable. It’s hard to feel happy about this, of course, but my forecasts hinge on two forms of strategic thinking that, against all odds, continue to serve special librarians quite well.

First, those of us who handily let go of the battles over space are better prepared to think more daringly about how to push services forward. A comprehensive pivot toward services that emphasize our own activism yields exciting results, particularly in online working groups. With no library space to oversee, we may find ourselves embedded everywhere in the organization. This is a huge opportunity, but it is not always perceived as one. Online life is noisier than ever, but our message is simple: We have the answers, and we can help you find them. Contrary to the “shushing” stereotype we still bear, many of us are extroverts and great communicators. And many more of us realize that everyone appreciates direct communication, in person, online, and over the long term.  

Second, like all professionals, we know a lot about future trends, but we cannot know everything. Online and remote forms of work are still new, and they will change. The change agent is the human urge to connect, and this need is ongoing. People still require help with accessing knowledge resources and in analyzing what information they find in their own discovery process. The need remains the same, even as the tools and communication platforms evolve. I can think of many case studies in which responsive service wins strong support. For example, I recently met a second-year lawyer at a reception. She is associated with the San Francisco offices of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, LLP and described how much she admires the library staffers. “I use them all the time,” she said. “I think my colleagues who don’t are missing one of the best values in our firm. I’m always singing their praises.”

Information Services, Personified in Us

Perceiving a long-term information services lifecycle helps us tailor flexible services to organizations and workstyles as they exist today, rather than imposing outmoded ideas that have lost their edge. Change is constant and all around us, and the era of building grand spaces and public commons is all but gone.  

The digital economy is still new, and at a time when “stay at home” is driving remote work, our most innovative leaders are accentuating communication and relationship management. The proactive response of special librarians to new forms of remote work is the best indicator I can see that we are watching the trends and are ready to act. A need to offer meaningful service is hardwired into our training and daily lives. If we follow this tendency for creative action in all settings and forms, we will have much greater influence over the information services lifecycle. Perhaps we can even define it for others and forestall cycles of change solely for the sake of change. To do so would clearly benefit the organizations we are so committed to serving.

Terence K. HuweTerence K. Huwe is library director emeritus at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California–Berkeley. His email address is, and he blogs at