Special libraries – special skills

Finland’s functional library network is based on cooperation among all libraries. The establishment of the Council for the Special Libraries in 2003 launched a more structured cooperation between special libraries and with other library sectors.

Special libraries are focused on a particular field, user group, area or type of publication in their collections and services. Such libraries are typically found in public administration, organisations and companies.

Several different estimates exist on the number of special libraries in Finland. At the moment, the Network of Special Libraries and Information Services features representatives from approximately 70 organisations. Once special collections maintained by companies and private entities are included, however, this number goes up significantly.

Special libraries have another cooperation group under the Finnish Research Library Association, which organizes seminars and library visits.

Special libraries closed

In Finland, library services have been developed through network cooperation, which means that many special libraries have nationally-defined responsibilities for collections in specific fields of science. Some of the special libraries’ services are intended for organisation-internal use exclusively, but most are open to the public.

During the past few years, several special libraries have been unceremoniously closed down or pushed to the background of the organisation’s activities – but many libraries have also been merged, so the situation is not entirely bleak. 

The worst cases result in staff terminations; which means that in addition to professional competence, we lose an overall understanding of available information resources, which reduces public access to the material. Digital material must also be compiled by someone, and search engines cannot find everything. This is a waste of resources, pure and simple.

Difficulties began years ago

In many ways, special libraries are the pioneers of the library world, even though they may not have state-of-the-art library systems or more than one representative of information service staff, as is the case in many organisations. The years 2015 and 2016 have been characterised by cooperation negotiations in all library sectors, but for people involved in special libraries, the difficult times began years ago.

Cutting or shutting down collections means that the focus of the work shifts to other duties – which is not necessarily a negative. Library and information service staff has gained responsibilities relating to communications and online services, and information service can also serve as IT support.

Library and information service staff are also active in general administrative duties and carrying out training sessions. This is the everyday work for me, and many other special library employees, and it may signal the future of libraries in other sectors. We would do well to share our skills across organisations and sectors more actively before this becomes a reality.

Intellectual property rights

My work in the IPR University Centre, which is operated by six Finnish universities, takes many forms. Our primary duty is to produce and disseminate information on a topic very familiar to most library people, intellectual property rights (IPR). Copyrights, trademarks, patents, copyright of design and other fields of intellectual property rights are everywhere, and will only grow in significance as the future becomes more and more intangible. Understanding intellectual property rights requires understanding technology, finance and culture in addition to legal issues.

We supplement the services of university libraries, and other special libraries supplement our services. Information services on our topic are also available from the Finnish Patent and Registration Office and the Finnish Copyright Society Library. We are based next door to the Library of Parliament, which houses Finland’s finest legal collections, and if we need older resources, which are otherwise unavailable, we contact the National Repository Library.

Better than Google

Future competence needs are very similar in special libraries as they are in other library sectors. The basic skills and duties will remain the same, but methods and tools will change. Library work and document management are becoming closer to one another, and managing library resources increasingly entails data management. Libraries are producing less and less content description themselves, but the significance of metadata is on the rise.

During my studies in the early 2000s, bibliometrics was ignored by most, but the situation is completely different now. I am eager to see whether another area of information studies will soon see a similar golden age.

On a practical level, open science and data will become familiar to everyone working in research. This generates demand for legal and technological skills, but at all points it should be understood why, for whom and how such services are produced. Currently this concept is better known as service design.

Interest in learning new things is surely the most important characteristic for anyone working in information services. It requires the ability to jump into new things even if we do not have all the information or skills beforehand.

More duties in job description

To train others, we must train ourselves and take on the role of the learner. Duties relating to the analysis and foresight of information will probably find their ways to more and more job descriptions in the future, and if the organisation also produces publications, fact checking duties as well.

The value of information specialists in special libraries will increase as they gain years of experience and deeper expertise. The goal is to make the work and information seeking of our clients as easy as possible, so we must understand the content and the operating environment. If we can make our skills visible, we will not lack for clients who will see our technological or substance expertise as a gift from the heavens.

Succeeding in our work can yield the highest compliment of our field in this age: “You’re better than Google!”

Information Specialist IPR University Center Chair of the Council for the Special Libraries