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Special Librarians: Not Just By the Book

Forget the bespectacled, shushing, finger-wagging, dog-eared stereotype. Special librarians are flexible, resourceful -- and essential in many of today's workplaces.

Where there's information to be stored, retrieved, analyzed or distributed, there's a need for special librarians. That's because they do way more than simply rhyme off the Dewey Decimal system. They locate accurate and reliable information for organizations and help bridge the gap between employees and technology.

Ulla de Stricker heads a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning for information services. She says special librarians are known by many different names: corporate librarians, knowledge officers, decision support managers, corporate memory managers and business intelligence officers.

"Regardless of what they're called, they're all vital to an organization's ability to know what it knows, and discover what it doesn't."

And they can be found in many different places: corporations, law firms, advertising agencies, museums, professional associations, research laboratories and more.

But in the eyes of many, librarians are laboring under an outdated stereotype.

"Traditionally, the profession of librarianship has suffered from a somewhat stuffy image," says de Stricker. "It's understandable that those in a position to choose careers may think: 'Librarian! Oh dear!"

Things are changing, albeit somewhat too slowly for some.

"We still hear the 'Oh, everything is on the Internet now so we don't need a librarian anymore' nonsense," says de Stricker.

"Savvy managers know better. Really savvy managers know to deploy special librarian skill sets in every area of the organization's life where information plays a role: corporate memory, document management, customer relations management, etc."

Judith Siess publishes a newsletter for librarians. She agrees that there is still a need for them, even with all the free information available on the Internet.

"It isn't ALL there, it isn't ALL good, and it isn't free if you count the productive time wasted by engineers, scientists, marketing people, executives, etc., who neither know where or how to find good, reliable, accurate information," says Siess.

And really savvy special librarians know how to sell themselves in order to get the job and keep it.

"It may seem pushy, but you have to sell yourself every day by providing service that is on time, on budget and meets or exceeds expectations," says Mitchell Brown. Brown is a mathematics and physics librarian at Princeton University.

"Don't go into special librarianship if you want to get rich, or if you just want to read books, or if you just think it would be fun," warns Siess.

"DO go into it if you genuinely like people, like helping them find answers to their problems...if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, if you have good communication and presentation skills, if you are dedicated to lifelong learning to keep yourself up to date, and if you play well with others. This is no longer a profession for the timid or shy or the person who wants to hide in the stacks."

To get started, a degree in library sciences is good. But so far, few colleges and universities offer degrees geared specifically to special librarians.

Some industry insiders suggest you get a degree in something such as law or business first, then apply that education towards a second degree in library sciences or move directly into the information management field.

"Many librarians come to the field as second or third careers, and this pool of experience is useful in understanding corporate information needs," says Brown.

"The field has flexibility and provides for a broad range of technical and intellectual job situations, so your career can change as your situation or interests change."

While education and experience are important, so is attitude. "Be prepared for many challenges," says de Stricker. "Be prepared to have to sell yourself constantly and initiate projects on a shoestring in order to demonstrate the utility of something.

"Traditionally, the library faculties attracted service-oriented individuals, not necessarily entrepreneurial types with skills in relationship management and 'selling.' That is changing, and it is encouraging to see dynamic personalities enter the field."


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