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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Distinctive Characteristics of Special Libraries

Smart Libraries Newsletter [September 2016]

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I observe in my work with different types of libraries a growing difference in the roles they play for their clientele and in the technology they need to support that work. Although there are some common core functions, each group seems increasingly distinct.

Common ground includes the acquisition, organization, and fulfillment of information resources on behalf of a defined body of stakeholders. In academic libraries, the stakeholders are the students, faculty and staff members of a college or university. Public libraries provide resources for the general public of their service area, and school libraries work mostly with enrolled students. The services that each type of library provides to these stakeholder groups each take quite a different form.

In broad strokes, academic libraries serve the information needs of a college or university for its curriculum and research activities. For most universities, the majority of this information comes in the form of subscriptions to the scholarly and professional literature provided mostly in electronic formats. New spending on print monographs and serials represents a small—and diminishing— proportion of collection budgets. Most have substantial legacy print collections, increasingly relegated to off-site storage facilities. Public libraries—serving populations spanning all ages, ethnic groups, and income brackets—aim to provide a broad selection of materials for their patrons. Print materials continue as the lifeblood of public libraries, with interest in e-books and audiobook lending ever rising. School libraries provide appropriate materials to students by reading or grade level, working closely with teachers and administrators. These diverging operating assumptions also translate into different needs for technology infrastructure.

Special libraries represent yet another category of libraries with an even more distinct set of assumptions. While still within the common mission of acquiring, managing, and providing access to information resources for its stakeholders, special libraries—especially those within corporate environments— generally work within a more strictly defined set of operating principles.

A diverse set of organizations fall within what is generally considered the category of special libraries. Examples include libraries or information centers that serve corporations, law firms, government agencies or departments, non-governmental organizations, and non-profit organizations. Libraries serving each of these types of organizations will naturally collect and manage resources in distinct subjects or disciplines, but they share some common characteristics.

These include that:

  • they focus on materials in electronic and digital formats, including:
    • subscriptions to electronic resources in relevant academic or professional disciplines acquired form commercial publishers;
    • proprietary content, such as reports and other documents published internally that may be restricted from use outside the organization; and
    • digitized images or video.
  • they have less of an emphasis on print formats. These libraries may have relatively small collections of published books, but they may deal with historical reports and archival materials created in print.

For many of these organizations, there is no expectation that library resources will be available on the open web. Corporate libraries mostly exist behind a firewall. The concept of an intranet pervades where most company business is conducted within their private networks, with an entirely different set of content presented through their public web sites. These intranets provide a set of resources of interest to personnel affiliated with the organization. These resources are often sensitive, intended only for internal use by specific departments within the organization. Access to the intranet is provided only once authorized users authenticate using their corporate credentials.

The primary users of special libraries are usually the employees of the organization. The library is responsible for providing the information resources that employees need to perform their work. Some may be expected to provide at least an initial level of analysis of the information rather than simply providing the information in raw form. Some special libraries may also offer research services to external stakeholders, such as customers or the general public. Special libraries often work with a much different set of expectations regarding privacy and confidentiality than what applies to public or academic libraries. Since their use of the library is part of their work responsibilities, there is usually no assumption of anonymity or privacy in the use of the information resources provided.

These trends in collections shape the types of technology tools needed by these organizations. The traditional integrated library system, with its emphasis on print materials and business rules for lending, is not necessarily a good fit for special libraries. The index-based discovery tools oriented to academic libraries are less applicable. These libraries may also need to provide access to the body of published scientific literature, but also must include proprietary resources.

Instead, other products and services have been developed to meet the specific needs of special libraries. These products may include vestiges of functionality from integrated library systems, but mostly deliver functionality consistent with the collections and organizational characteristics mentioned above.

Key categories of functionality for these organizations might be built around concepts such as enterprise knowledge management. These organizations may work more with document management systems or digital asset management platforms. These tools often need to have strong analytical components to identify and distill needed information from large quantities of textual or rich media content.

Given the requirements for access control and to work within the firewall, these libraries often have needs for authentication authorization. Library tools and information resources need to be available through the single sign-on the organization may have in place for access to its other productivity and business applications. Public and academic libraries may be used to exposing their online catalogs to the general web, but it is common in special libraries to allow only internal access, often requiring individual authentication rather than anonymous access.

Given these distinctions in organizational and functional assumptions, it is not surprising that these libraries are served by a distinct group of companies and product offerings. While the companies offering integrated library system products to public and academic libraries may also include some special libraries within their customer base, they are usually offering them to special libraries with more involvement with physical collections.

The roster of companies specializing in technologies for special libraries includes:

  • Lucidea: a consolidated company that includes Sydney- PLUS, Inmagic, and Cuadra Associates, and Questor Systems. (See the June 2010, December 2011, and July 2013 issues of Smart Libraries Newsletter for more information on the evolution of Lucidea.) This company specializes in libraries serving law firms and large corporations.
  • EOS International: now a part of SirsiDynix, this organization serves a diverse range of special libraries as well as smaller academic libraries. (See the December 2013 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter for the company background and acquisition by SirsiDynix.)
  • Soutron Global: a more recently established company offering library management software originally developed in the United Kingdom. (See the April 2012 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter for more information.)
  • Softlink: based in Australia, this company has developed its Liberty library management system for special and academic libraries.
  • CyberTools for Libraries: specializes in libraries in healthcare organizations.
  • TDNet: a spin-off of Teldan Information Systems that offers discovery, portal, and authentication tools primarily for special libraries.

This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter includes a feature on TDNet, which has not previously been given extensive coverage in this publication. Discovery products represent an important genre within the overall library technology sector. EBSCO Discovery Service, Summon, Primo, and WorldCat Discovery service have been seminal products for academic libraries, and BiblioCommons has created compelling interfaces for public libraries. The technology products of TDNet provide an opportunity to consider aspects of discovery and access to content through the lens of special libraries.

View Citation
Publication Year:2016
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 36 Number 09
Issue:September 2016
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:22253
Last Update:2022-12-05 15:09:00
Date Created:2017-02-16 09:04:57