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Knowledge management and special libraries – amicable companions or uneasy bedfellows?

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David Tan, Coles Myer Research

Special libraries

Special libraries are just that. They are special. Be it a corporate library, government department information centre, law library or health related resource centre, specials are all individually unique. Often, they reflect the culture of the parent organization, possess unique collections, specialized resources and collective knowledge. At times they can even reflect the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the staff who manage them. In every which way, each special library is unlike another and it is this, which provides the strong attraction to work within such an information sector.

Being part of a larger organization, special libraries are obliged to operate in line with current corporate strategies, policies and culture. Increasingly, these strategies are related to competitive advantage that in turn rely on the capitalization of knowledge assets and expert insights. That said, the corporate library is also part of this paradigm and is required to position their services in line with corporate direction and strategies. It is then no surprise that in a knowledge economy, business is aware more than ever, of the importance of capturing knowledge and using it for commercial advantage. This I accept, however, it is the way that organizations have misinterpreted the knowledge management concept and doing so, marginalize already excellent information services, that forces me to continually re-examine the KM catch-cry, and its relationship with special libraries.

The KM panacea

Much has been written on special libraries and the pursuit of knowledge management. Loughbridge (1999), on examining the "fad" of KM and libraries, concludes that "many aspects of knowledge management practice bear a close resemblance to well established practices in librarianship and information management". The author goes on to state that no real consensus exists yet, that clearly differentiates between KM and established information resources management theory and practice. Possible cynicism aside, any theory that has the potential to radically impact on how management view library and information services must be examined closely, questioned openly, and ideally, be adopted in part or whole, according to the benefits identified.

Certainly, KM theory should not be bluntly dismissed and is relevant to library management and practice, however, let's not ignore the sophistication with which many libraries already operate. One and a half decades in special libraries has revealed to me a worrying trend of senior management misunderstanding KM and in many instances, cultivating unrealistic expectations of what it can deliver. Even more challenging is the uninformed "hijacking" of KM ideology and its interpretation by management, then having it imposed on existing library and information services. Thankfully, the trend towards a pure reliance on technology solutions as the KM cure-all has appeared to turn around, and focusing on people and culture is slowly being seen as the real KM driver. In all this, special libraries have continued the crusade against being marginalized and disenfranchised when it comes to KM recognition, despite what I have long termed the "great KM heist" (by IT and even more perturbing, by other corporate areas such as HR). Karl-Erik Sveiby (2000), one of the founding fathers on contemporary KM thought, similarly bemoans that "KM became 'hijacked' by the IT vendors".


In 1998, The Delphi Group conducted a survey of 800 professionals on a range of issues including KM, document management, intranet management and workflow. Their research note entitled Knowledge Management Leadership (1999) documented the results of 300 of the respondents who specifically provided data relating to knowledge management. Respondents were asked questions in relation to KM engagement, sponsorship, leadership, roles and how KM was used by organizations. From the point of view of special libraries, the most alarming response was to the question of where one would ideally source KM leadership from within the organization. Only 6 per cent identified the corporate librarian. Even more discomforting was the fact that previous research in 1997, this response was 7.6 per cent. As the report findings state, "While this profession has traditionally carried the torch for knowledge availability and distribution, it does not appear to have developed a mandate to move into the leadership role for knowledge management practice".

This "new found" thing called knowledge

One would hope by now, that the situation has improved for special libraries and KM. There is evidence of some library professionals being employed in organization-wide KM leadership roles, but I would hesitate to say that many organizations still do not see the corporate library as an obvious source for KM leadership. Is it that special libraries are not viewed by management as potentially centres of excellence, or are capable of leading the way in KM best practice? While KM theory certainly adds to the existing body of knowledge when it comes to library and information science, I am not convinced that libraries have not significantly paved the way for such postulation on this "new found" thing called knowledge.

Traditionally, librarians have not led the way in terms of self-promotion and marketing. I don't believe this is generally the case now for many specialized information services. Promoting one's services and expertise is key to survival and this imperative is not lost on today's library professional. As Wittwer (2001) states, "they (special librarians) require a fearless, forward thinking mind-set coupled with an acute ability to self-promote".

"Old librarianship in new clothing", or are we in denial?

Rowley (2003), in addition to describing the above prevailing sentiment, also argues that this "stubborn declaration" is inconsistent with the realities we face. No matter what the protestations of the faithful, the author believes it matters little. Surviving in a "knowledge-based society" cannot accommodate a denial of KM, no matter what the "fuzziness", or which self-serving sector chooses to take it as their own.

If one is to be accused of being a luddite, then Rowley's paper does a good job in smoothing ruffled feathers and explaining the realities of KM in the context of modern society and the workplace. She boldly states that "KM is the future" and that there is potential for those practising conventional librarianship to shift and become part of the KM paradigm shift.

For many special librarians who have witnessed or experienced the frustration that is non-library management imposing often unrealistic expectations of KM, uneasiness is to be expected. Conversely, and clearly, special libraries will have to accept that KM is here to stay and that keeping it at arm's length will only further harm the potential for specials to champion the KM cause within their organizations. In conclusion, it is equally important for special libraries to adopt, promote and educate on all things KM but from their own perspective and expertise, and not submit to the "preachification" of those who have suddenly discovered that knowledge is key. Librarians have known this all along, but now is the time to do something about it.

References and further reading

The Delphi Group (1999), Knowledge Management Leadership, Delphi Group.

Loughridge, B. (1999) "Knowledge management, librarians and information managers: fad or future?", New Library World, Vol. 100 No. 6, pp. 245-253.

Rowley, J. (2003), "Knowledge management – the new librarianship? From custodians of history to gatekeepers to the future ", Library Management, Vol. 24 No. 8/9, pp. 433-440.

Sveiby, E. (2000), Knowledge Management – The Viking Way.

Witwerr, R. (2001), "Special libraries – how to survive in the twenty-first century", The Electronic Library, Vol. 19 No. 4, pp. 221-224.