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Vol. 19 No. 2 — March 2011
Survival Lessons for Libraries
Educating Special Librarians — “The Past Is Prologue”
by James Matarazzo, Dean and Professor Emeritus,
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College
and Toby Pearlstein, Former Director, Global Information Services, Bain & Company, Inc.
“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,
from her 1950 article in
Special Libraries
When we began writing this series of articles addressing survival lessons for special libraries, we had more questions than answers; this is still the case. 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 that 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.

We thought it might be useful to “peel back the onion,” so to speak, and 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/librarian survival in the context of library education — basically going back to the source of how we as information professionals learn about our profession and how to pursue it specifically when working in a specialized environment (corporate, medical, government, legal, etc.). Here is where we believe 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.

For the purposes of this article, when we talk about library education, we are referring to graduate level library/information programs accredited by the American Library Association (ALA) and resulting in a master’s degree or the myriad similar degrees related to information management currently being offered. 2

Déjà Vu All Over Again (With Apologies to Yogi Berra)

Writing in the journal Special Libraries in 1910, John Cotton Dana had already realized the challenge faced by the profession in formulating a definition of a special library. He characterized an early definition, “the library of the modern man of affairs,” as not sufficiently inclusive. Even his beloved modern businessmen’s branch in the Newark Public Library, though it had proved itself of great value as a “useful tool for business firms of all kinds in the city,” was still considered “far from being a typical special library of men of affairs.” 3 Dana found there was already such a variety of special collections of books, reports, and other printed materials that no definition could satisfactorily include them all. He predicted an even wider and more rapid development of all kinds of special libraries.

By 1914, when the number of special libraries had grown, Dana described the driving force behind this growth:

One can only say that managers of scientific, engineering, manufacturing, managerial, commercial, financial, insurance, advertising, social and other organizations, including states, cities, government commissions and the like, are … coming every day in increasing numbers to the obvious conclusion, that it pays to employ an expert who shall be able, when equipped with proper apparatus, to give them from day to day news of the latest movements in their respective fields. 4

From our perspective, the role of providing “day to day news of the latest movements in their respective fields” is simply another way of recognizing the value of the special librarian who is aligned with his or her employer’s mission. By 1919 Dana was being even more explicit:

[The special library] contains all the useful things in all aspects of the organization which maintains it, and can obviously contribute to that organization’s success; and it contains much, very much, that can help the men behind the organization — the “workingmen”. … His library does not only tell the owners of the enterprise, for which it exists, how to prosper, it tells the same to those who labor for the owners. It is … an informative, thought-provoking, habit-disturbing, ambition-arousing library [which is] eagerly sought and used by all the men and women on the organization’s job. 5

By 1929, Dana could enumerate more than 1,000 special business libraries in the U.S. alone and the existence of a British Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux. In his opinion, this increase was driven by three factors: the explosion of business literature, the increases in communication and transportation facilitating the exchange of information, and the “increased interest in the professional development of workers [i.e. librarians] in the field.” 6

What of this “professional development of workers in the field”? As early as 1893, the Denver Public Library noted, “It is believed that a year in an active library would prove to many, more valuable than a year in the best of colleges for women.” 7

Chauvinistic sentiment notwithstanding, we see even this early in the profession, the sense by an employer that hands-on work in a library might well provide a more valuable education for the aspiring professional than a year of college courses. And we see throughout Dana’s writings, his expression of the value of the librarian as someone who is able to characterize and categorize a rapidly growing body of printed information, knowledgeable about his or her clientele and whose role is defined as someone who connects that clientele to a vast array of available information.

Fast-forward to 1950. The May-June issue of Special Libraries featured two articles that directly addressed the challenges faced by special librarians during and since Dana’s time: how to be educated to be a special librarian and how the role of a special librarian vis-à-vis his or her employer should be defined.

Ruth Leonard (1950), writing about education for special librarianship, identified three prevailing views of how one could become a special librarian. The first thesis was that special librarianship could not or need not be taught; training could only be acquired properly through experience. Others, she wrote, believed that intensive academic preparation in subject fields (e.g., law, chemistry, music, etc.) plus a general library education would be adequate. Finally, there were those who “see in special librarianship a distinctive relationship to business, industry or the professions which requires ‘special’ content and method in the training program.” 8

Leonard found few LS programs of the day prepared to train their students for a career in a special library. She noted the lack of textbooks on special library administration and “very little organized literature on the characteristics and philosophy of special librarianship.” 9 And she felt that few schools offered courses devoted to organization and administration so that students could be specifically trained in the variety of administrative and professional operations that librarians of industrial corporations, nonprofit associations and institutions, and government agencies must know. She contrasted this overall situation with the master’s program that had been on offer at the School of Library Science at Simmons College since 1940. The uniqueness of the Simmons approach was that it offered a program (graduate program in special librarianship), not simply an elective course, in special libraries. Fully one-half of the required 40 semester hours were devoted to courses carefully integrated to make a balanced preparation for special library positions.

The other critical components of Simmons’ training of special librarians at the time was a 2-week period each spring devoted to specialized experience in the field, provided through the cooperation of special libraries in the Boston area, and a requirement that any students who did not already have professional experience in a special library undertake a “six week in-service training in a well-organized and capably administered library. There, students would be given sound experience under the guidance of a qualified special librarian.” Students were also able to take 8 semester hours of graduate courses in their respective fields to strengthen their subject preparation.

One of the most prescient points Leonard makes, though, is one we feel still holds true today. “Successful development of special library education,” she wrote, “is also impeded by the fact that the library educator and the special librarian continue in their failure to understand each other.” 10 The training and experience of library educators was “general” compounded by little contact with special libraries, while the special librarians often failed to see beyond their own organization and had little in common with the experience of the library educators.

Writing in the same issue of Special Libraries as Leonard, Samuel Sass described the challenge facing special librarians being asked to undertake tasks that he felt were beyond their training and, moreover, beyond what he saw as their appropriate role in the organization. 11 Sass saw the role of the special librarian as a bibliographer, someone who knew the sources of information within a specific industry. He felt strongly that it was not the role of the librarian to abstract or synthesize or translate or in any way be an expert in the field (of the organization). While the special library might house those whose task it was to translate materials or to synthesize information and this would be a good thing for the visibility of the library, these individuals would not be librarians who had enough to handle doing their own jobs.

Almost 50 years after the founding of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), Sass wrote about the value and role the special librarian could play within a business organization. Yet these two major issues — how to educate someone for working in a special library, and the appropriate role of the special librarian within an organization — remained the object of much discussion and no resolution.

Almost 50 years later, Marion Paris (1999) 12 would take up these questions again, illustrating to us, at least, that these issues remain the core of discussions around the survival of special libraries and the information professionals who work in them.

What Is the Goal of Graduate Education in Library Science?

Plainly stated, our hypothesis is that if you want to be an information professional in a specialized environment (e.g., medical, legal, government, museum, records or knowledge management, competitive intelligence) rather than in a public, school, or undergraduate academic library, or a scholar of library and information science, most M.L.S. 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.

To place this in context, in an analysis of for-profit positions advertised in New England between 1997–2009 13, we illustrated how the use of data gathered over time can provide insights into the viability of pursuing a career in special libraries. We found a significant downward trend in the number of jobs advertised across a variety of organization types. While this represents only one geographic area, it does show the value of gathering such data on a wider basis to better inform the development of library school curricula, as well as offering a way for potential information professionals to determine how to focus their M.L.S. studies to make the most of opportunities for employment. Once again, we urge organizations such as SLA, which is uniquely positioned to collect this kind of data on behalf of its membership, to do so in a systematic and ongoing way.

With only a couple of exceptions, most M.L.S. programs focus on the core library science skills. When anything like a “track” is offered whereby students could customize their learning/training, it typically focuses on school library media center certification preparation, which is regulated very specifically by the state in which the individual wants to work. Preparation for any other kind of information-related employment is almost always left to the student and his or her advisor to cobble together a program of courses that address a specific environment. And a student must hope that enough courses will be taught related to this specialty during the course of his or her matriculation to constitute preparation sufficient to make him or her attractive to a prospective employer. The Simmons program outlined by Ruth Leonard in 1950 no longer exists, nor have other M.L.S. programs replicated it.

There may be nothing wrong with generic programs when specialized employers are flush with training funds and have sufficient experienced professionals to act as mentors to entry-level professionals, many of whom have never even had the opportunity to take a special libraries class. We are also mindful that many special libraries have just one professional staff member with no one available to train the new librarian. If someone’s goal in getting a graduate degree in library science is to be prepared to enter the job market as a specialized librarian, with even the basic knowledge and skill set relevant to an employer, he or she will need to find one with patience and a deep pocket for further training. Such opportunities are few and far between even in the best economic times. Our graduate library science programs are simply not offering enough in the way of special library tracks aligned with employment placement opportunities. Again, this presumes that either the school’s placement office or relevant professional associations are on top of where these employment opportunities currently exist or will most likely develop. Without a concerted effort by the graduate institutions at data gathering and analysis for purposes of guiding curriculum and student preparation, graduates will find themselves at a disadvantage in a shrinking job market. This also presumes that library school curriculum committees and faculty overall can be nimble enough to respond to the changing economic environment by offering courses aligned with what employers want.

This 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 M.L.S. program.

Value of Competencies Documents in the Education of Librarians

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” 14 developed by various information professional groups. Associations such as SLA, 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.

Focusing on library school closings in her 1999 article “Beyond Competencies: A Trendspotter’s Guide to Library Education,” Paris writes that these various competencies documents “illustrate efforts to codify and to promulgate commonly accepted professional standards.” She goes on to observe that the last time (prior to 1999) competencies saw the limelight was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, coinciding with the first wave of library school closings when practitioners’ confidence in education programs declined. Paris then asks a very forward-thinking question. “If we live to experience this phenomenon a third time, will it indicate a trend”? 15

We would argue that we are currently experiencing this phenomenon a third time, perhaps not totally related to library school closings, but certainly in relation to the scarcity of jobs available to library school graduates and perhaps also in relation to the value practitioners put on LS education programs.

Paris also discusses the development of the ALA Accreditation Program and how it was ultimately determined that all accreditable professional programs would grant master’s degrees following completion of 36 credit hours. “It was assumed,” she writes, “at least in theory that any new graduate could qualify for an entry-level position, with the possible exceptions of school librarians and advanced technical information specialists.” 16 Underlying this assumption is the ongoing troubling notion, raised by Paris in 1999 and still relevant today, that “thirty six credit hours, a crazy-quilt of courses taken based on little more than when they are available, [either in the program or when the student can find the time to take them], barely prepares students for their current jobs, much less for the future.” 17

Paris is writing for a special libraries’ audience. One of her concerns is whether or not there will be enough LS graduates to fill the special library positions being vacated by retirements. While today this concern is likely mitigated by a shrinkage overall in numbers of special library jobs, the core concern still remains true: whether or not there will be enough 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. 18 What are we to expect, Paris asks, if, in fact, in some LS programs students’ only exposure to special librarianship is through the generous invitations, year after year, of SLA members or their occasional lecture or class visit lasting an hour or less?

Paris’ 1999 assessment holds true even today. With the exception of a few areas, most library school faculties have not embraced this concern about special librarianship and the requirements codified in these competency documents, nor have they used them as road maps for creating paths to survival for their graduates. Further, we would argue that the associations, once these documents have been created, seem to act as if their job is done and, whether for lack of resources or interest, make little or no effort to push library schools to act on incorporating them or the spirit behind them into their curricula in very specific ways.

Other Issues of Concern: Students

In 1995, Bosseau and Martin 19 wrote about the unusual and delayed route that most librarians took on their way to a career in the field. In their experience (and ours as well), it was reasonable to conclude that in general the profession needed to recruit and attract exceptional people right out of college. Martin and Bosseau wanted the bright, energetic, recent graduates who appeared to be headed to law school, medicine, and other seemingly interesting professions to become librarians. Well, 15 or so years later, this wish appears to have come true. At most library schools today, students are younger by and large. Whether they have selected this field because of high interest or due to the lack of jobs in other fields remains to be seen.

When the average age of a student in M.L.S. programs was 35, many of those late bloomers had substantial experience at pre-professional positions within libraries. Others had worked as professionals in other fields. For those older and experienced new entrants to the profession, the “world of work” was familiar. And, to repeat, those without library experience could “learn the ropes” from a whole host of veterans on staff.

These new students have no work experience. While young and bright, they are entering a field they know little about. Most complete their M.L.S. degrees with little time for internships or practicums. If they are lucky enough to find positions, the staff they join will have been reduced and the mentoring that might have been available in the past has now disappeared, as those veterans who remain are unwilling or simply unable to make up for the staff that left and were not replaced. The call for the young and brightest that Bosseau and Martin touted went out when staffing was at a high point and the long-term consequences for these students and their employability (at least in specialized libraries) was given little thought.

Other Issues of Concern: Faculty

On the other hand, library schools that have vacancies for faculty are receiving lots of applications. But this new group of applicants who will teach is very different from those from 15 years ago or even 5 years ago. These applicants are students who went from undergraduate work directly to master’s programs. LIS faculties, always eager to spot the best and the brightest, have talked these newly minted master’s degree recipients into Ph.D. programs.

These new and soon to be completed Ph.D.s want to teach. As applicants for teaching vacancies, they well outnumber other applicants who have been (or want to continue to be) practitioners. This creates yet another problem in the search for the best and the brightest to join our profession.

LIS faculty and those in practice have not had a close relationship in the past. Remember Leonard’s 1950 statement that “the library educator and the special librarian continue in their failure to understand each other.” 20 The demands at most universities are for research, publication, and receiving grants. Nonetheless, for those who belong to ALISE (Association for Library and Information Science Education) or ALA, faculty and practitioners at least meet on committees and at other conference events. In the past, teaching faculty had work experience which most certainly enriched the classroom, at least for public, academic, and school library classes.

Special librarians and teaching faculty rarely had this close and continuing relationship. In fact, at SLA conferences and in the past few years in InformationOutlook, the SLA journal, LIS faculty presence is rare. This lack of interaction presents a terrible problem for those interested in a career in specialized libraries, including for-profit corporate libraries. Consider this: Fewer programs offer classes in special libraries. A few schools offer a single class in special libraries, but practitioners with full-time jobs teach many of these classes. These part-time faculty appear for class and do a good job, but, while this offers at least some interaction with the real world of special libraries, after class they go back to work and the student is left with no one on faculty with even an interest in these areas. In some cases, the special library class is taught by a faculty member who has been “asked” to teach the class when no practitioner was available. With the instructor having no real knowledge of the area and no textbook to use, the class is at a real disadvantage.

In an effort to reverse the trend of second and third career students from “accidentally” finding library and information studies, Bosseau and Martin had put out a call to make LIS a first choice. As we have shown, even great ideas thoughtfully presented can have unintended consequences. Sure, the trend of the 35-year-old student starting a program of study has been reversed for the time being, but this has led to other issues that must be addressed.

100 Years — Progress Still Elusive

In the next article in this series, we will posit some ideas for a model of education for special librarianship in the for-profit sector. We believe that with the right training, starting as early as an LIS program (or even with significant outreach to high school seniors and college undergraduates), and with the right mindset, we can create M.L.S. and related programs that will be aligned with what employers want from information professionals (even as we also continue to educate these employers about the value of our skill set).

We will focus on our belief that with 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 M.L.S. graduates. Our 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, we do not believe that special librarians, particularly in profit-based organizations, are headed for terminal irrelevance. With that baseline in mind, we think that more discussion resulting in concrete actions around these topics could finally lead us to make some progress before another 100 years pass by.


1 Leonard, Ruth S. “Education for Special Librarianship,” Special Libraries. May-June 1950. Vol. 41, No. 5, p. 157.

2, last visited November 2010.

3 Hanson, Carl A. (ed). “The President’s Opening Remarks,” Librarian at Large. Selected Writings of John Cotton Dana, Special Libraries Association, 1991, p. 53.

4 Ibid. “The Evolution of the Special Library,” p. 62.

5 Ibid. “The Business Man and the Special Library.” p. 66.

6 Ibid. “Libraries as Business Research Centers,” p. 67.

7 Ibid. “Library Pupils.” p. 97.

8 Leonard 157.

9 Leonard 157.

10 Leonard 157.

11 Sass, Samuel. “A Realistic Approach to Special Librarianship,” Special Libraries. Op. Cit. p. 160.

12 Paris, Marion. “Beyond Competencies: A Trendspotter’s Guide to Library Education,” Information Outlook, December 1999, pp. 31–36.

13 Matarazzo, James and Toby Pearlstein, “Survival Lessons for Libraries: A Microcosm Points to Broader Implications — Positions Advertised in For-Profit Libraries in New England 2006–2009,” Searcher, Vol. 18, No. 10, December 2010, pp. 12–14.

14 AALL [];
MLA [];
SLA [];
SCIP [ by Jerry Miller];
ALA and affiliates [].

15 Paris 33.

16 Paris 33.

17 Paris 34.

18 Paris 36.

19 Bosseau, Don L. and Susan K. Martin. “The Accidental Profession,” Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 21, No. 3. 1995, pp.198–199.

20 Leonard 157.

James Matarazzo ( is Dean and Professor Emeritus at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College, Boston, Ma. Toby Pearlstein ( is the Former Director of Global Information Services at Bain & Company, Inc.

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