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Special library

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Special library

A special library is a term for a library that is neither an academic, school, public or national library. Special libraries include corporate libraries, law libraries, medical libraries, museum libraries, news libraries, and nonprofit libraries.These libraries are not usually open to the general public, though many are available to specific elements of the public or scheduled appointments. Special libraries are also sometimes known as information centers. They are generally staffed by librarians, although many librarians employed in special libraries are specialists in the library's field rather than generally trained librarians, and often are not required to have advanced degrees in specifically library-related field due to the specialized content and clientele of the library.

Special libraries often have a more specific clientele than libraries in traditional educational or public settings, and deal with more specialized kinds of information. They are developed to support the mission of their sponsoring organization and their collections and services are more targeted and specific to the needs of their clientele. Depending on the particular library, special libraries may or may not be open to the general public or elements thereof. Those that are open to the public may offer services similar to research, reference, public, academic, or children's libraries, often with restrictions such as only lending books to patients at a hospital or restricting the public from parts of a military collection. Given the highly individual nature of special libraries, visitors to a special library are often advised to check what services and restrictions apply at that particular library.

Special libraries are "special" in their collection, clientle/users and service. All of them provide pinpointed, exhaustive and expeditious service to their users. For example, in a research institute's library, the scientists may not be having time to visit the library for information gathering. In such a situation the apt information and not the document should be supplied to the users. Current Awareness Service[CAS] and Selective Dissemination of Information[SDI] are very common.

The listing of special libraries in this article is not comprehensive. Special libraries as a field are defined by not being public, school, academic, or national libraries, and are highly individual in nature, focusing on a particular institution's needs or subject matter. Special libraries may be called libraries, information centers, information resource collections, or other names, typically decided by the institution that the library is attached to, and may or may not have a generally trained and qualified librarian on staff.


In their current status of library independent from public, academic, and archival libraries, special libraries are a recent phenomenon, although it is difficult to determine when they began to be recognized as a distinct subset of libraries due to the highly individualistic and independent nature of most special libraries. Perhaps the closest date to assign to the beginnings of special libraries in the modern sense is 1909, the year that the Special Libraries Association, one of the oldest and largest library advocacy groups specifically concerned with special libraries, was founded. Describing the history of special libraries in the modern sense of the word is therefore difficult, as the only criteria for defining a special library is that it is a library – itself an often nebulous term – that is not a national, research, reference, public, academic, children’s, or archival library. As a result, one view of the history of modern special libraries is that it is what the history of other types of libraries do not include.

However, finding the history of these types of groups before the modern definition of special libraries reveals that the concept of special libraries as libraries existing to support specific private interests or institutions in their goal is likely the oldest in existence. The first known libraries, dating back to the beginning of known history, recorded commercial transactions and inventories.[1][2] Today, these fall under the heading of corporate libraries, discussed below. Likewise, a substantial number of the cuneiform tablets recovered from the Library of Ashurbanipal detail Babylonian religious beliefs and myths.[3] Again, in a modern context, religious libraries are often considered special libraries.

Of course, early libraries are generally not considered to be special libraries in most contexts, but it is nevertheless clear that libraries today grouped under the label of special libraries long predate that label.

Professional Associations

One major professional association for special libraries is the Special Libraries Association, which has chapters in Canada, the US, and Europe. The UK based Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and the Australian Library and Information Association also have focus groups devoted to special libraries. More special library associations around the world can be found in the List of Library Associations.

Corporate Libraries

A corporate library is a collection of resources contained within a corporate entity. Corporate libraries help to organize and disseminate information throughout the organization for its own benefit. They often support areas in the company relating to finance, administration, marketing and technical specialization. In terms of size, they are seldom very large, and most library departments employ less than five full-time staff.[4] One major issue in corporate libraries relates to the difficulty of putting a dollar value on the intangible services the library provides to its parent company. The information services provided by corporate libraries save employees time, and can aid in competitive intelligence work.[5] However, neither of these values can be easily measured, a fact that is further complicated by the understanding that knowledge may be useful immediately upon acquisition, or at any unspecified time in the future.[6] For these reasons, the budgets of corporate libraries are often challenged.

Law Libraries

Main article: Law library

Law libraries are designed to assist law students, attorneys, judges, and their law clerks, and other individuals conducting legal research. Most law libraries are attached to law schools, private law firms, or government courts for the use of the respective institution's clientele, though some university libraries also maintain a dedicated legal section. Typically, the collections of law libraries are tailored to the specific legal interests and purview of the institution they are attached to and include limited to no collections of legal material outside that designated range. Most law librarians have advanced degrees in law, library science, and frequently both. However, legal reference services available to the general public are typically extremely limited due to legal restrictions on non-attorneys providing legal advice.

Medical Libraries

Main article: Medical library

Medical libraries, also known as hospital libraries or health libraries, are designed to support the needs of physicians, health professionals, medical researchers, medical students, patients, and consumers interested in the medical field. Most medical libraries are intended to assist active medical professionals, researchers, and the public interested in researching the medical field and are attached to hospitals, medical research facilities, medical schools, and similar institutions. Similar to law libraries, most medical librarians have degrees in a biological or medical field instead of or in addition to formal library training, and the specific nature of the medical library collection is tailored to the field or type of care that the library's institution specializes in.

Some hospitals also maintain a library specifically for the entertainment and leisure of patients rather than research, education, or professional development, and these libraries tend to function similarly to public libraries though their collections may be weighted towards medically related or themed works.

Military Libraries

Military libraries are designed to support the needs of members of a nation's armed forces and other personnel attached to the unit or base that the library is a part of .[7] The primary responsibilities of military libraries are assisting military personnel with access to resources for professional development, personal education, and leisure. Military libraries attached to military bases often include collections and services for families of personnel assigned to the base and may also maintain information on the history of the base, units assigned there, and notable personnel. Other military libraries are tasked with directly supporting military operations by providing access to pertinent resources or organizing and disseminating information directly related to a military unit or organization's activities. Depending on the specific responsibilities of the library, military libraries may be staffed by civilian librarians, military personnel with library or organizational training, or both.

Transportation Libraries

Transportation libraries are designed to support the study, research, and dissemination of information related to transportation. They provides resources related to policy, regulations, operations, and other aspects of transportation. Users of transportation libraries include engineers, city planners, contractors, academic researchers, and the general public.[8] Transportation libraries are located at the federal, state, and local levels of government, as well as at universities and research institutes. Major transportation libraries can be found in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, and Japan.[9]

Museum Libraries

Museum Libraries are libraries within museums.

News Libraries

Libraries which maintain collections of news articles and news related items.


Archives newspapers, magazines and other periodicals in print for consultation in public libraries may be called a Hemerotec in some European countries. The term also refers to an archive or a collection of newspapers, magazines and other journalistic publications of a specific type such as document archives of publishers. The term is also used for archives of recent web-pages.

One Person Libraries

  • See one-person libraries


  • Cloonan, Michele V.; Berger, Sidney E. "The Continuing Development of Special Collections Librarianship", in: Library Trends. 52, no. 1, (2003): 9 ISSN: 0024-2594
  • Scammell, Alison Handbook of Special Librarianship and Information Work. London: Aslib, ©1997. ISBN 0-85142-398-1

See also

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