Get in where you fit in: Overcoming challenges to continuing education in special libraries

I was recently lamenting the challenge of finding the right continuing education opportunities in the special libraries world. Our libraries and users are so specialized that typical professional development courses simply bear little relationship to the subject matter of our work.

For larger segments of the special libraries world, we have seen relevant programming grow – law and courthouse librarians now benefit from a wealth of continuing education opportunities (although, admittedly, these are most often targeted at new law librarians). For smaller groups, however, the challenge of finding relevant professional development continues. In many cases, this lack of programming is a matter of economies of scale. Librarians in more niche organizations, such as engineering firms and municipal offices, are so few and far between that it is challenging to provide topical and cost-effective continuing education programming. 

So what does the continuing education landscape look like for those niche special libraries? Special librarians across Canada weigh in on their experiences:

“As a research librarian on a small team in a large pension fund, I rely heavily on ad hoc learning to stay up-to-date on the best sources for information. My work requires knowledge of reliable sources across a variety of industries and countries, so it can be a challenge to stay informed. Professional development events offered through the Special Libraries Association (SLA), such as the annual conference, are critical for me because they allow me to connect with peers who are facing similar challenges and learn from their experiences. I also look to webinars hosted by vendors and government agencies to stay current on new functionality within our existing products and emerging trends.

– Jessica Darling, Senior Librarian, Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board

“As a non-traditional librarian, I am pushed to seek out opportunities for professional development and continuing education on my own. I find it helpful to be involved with a combination of local, regional, and national library associations in order to gain a broader scope. For me, this includes the Edmonton Law Libraries Association (ELLA), the Greater Edmonton Library Association (GELA), the Library Association of Alberta (LAA), and the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL). While it can prove to be challenging at times, not belonging to one specific type of library gives me the freedom to explore conferences, webinars, and workshops from different areas of the LIS world or otherwise.

– Megan Siu, Community Development & Education Specialist, Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta

“I rely on the conference and webinar programming from CALL and the SLA, but I’m also at a point in my career where I am also looking to courses, readings, and talks from unrelated fields. Whether it’s a piece on diversity in hiring in the Harvard Business Review or a specialized government webinar on maps resources, I’m increasingly turning to non-traditional sources for my continuing education needs.

– Bronwyn Guiton, government law librarian in Victoria, BC

Without a doubt, the common thread here is that continuing education in special libraries is tough but doable. It requires an abundance of curiosity, self-direction, and networking. There are opportunities to grow in your field and continue learning, you just have to do the work to find them. 

Bronwyn’s top tips and resources for continuing education while working in special libraries: 

  • Seek out fellow information professionals and make a point to connect with them regularly. For some, this means creating a Twitter list of your favourite people to follow, while for others this means scheduling a monthly lunch to talk shop. 
  • Make time to read and reflect. Look for blogs and print publications relevant to your work and take time to actually synthesize what the authors are writing about. 
  • Sign up for listservs or mailing lists for both your niche in the library world and your broader geographical area — you’ll get value out of both.  
  • Be an active member in professional associations that serve your niche in the library world. For some, that will be the Special Libraries Association, but there may be something even more specific or local for others, such as the Vancouver Science and Engineering Librarians group.  
  • Take advantage of opportunities. Great continuing education opportunities don’t come along every day (or even every month), so when you see something relevant to you — an interesting event or a call of volunteers — say yes and show up! 

Bronwyn Guiton is a government law librarian in Victoria, BC, and President of the SLA Western Canada Chapter.