Digital Libraries and Special Libraries

Initial Concerns of Special Libraries in the Social Welfare Sector

Mark Watson
Head of Library and Information Services
National Institute for Social Work
London, United Kingdom

David Streatfield
Information Management Associates
London, United Kingdom

D-Lib Magazine, December 1997

ISSN 1082-9873

Background to the Project

The National Institute for Social Work (UK) has begun to explore what librarians working in special libraries in the social welfare sector think about the possibilities and threats offered by digital libraries.

The project arose out of a concern that whilst there has been a major focus in recent years in the library and information field on the Internet, and digital/electronic/virtual libraries, the impact of such developments on special libraries, particularly outside the commercial sector, has not received as much attention.

The project also addressed the extent to which practitioners working in local government or voluntary social service agencies are being prevented from accessing digital library developments - through lack of access to the UK Higher Education network JANET, the digital resources academic library provide themselves and various collaborative schemes which offer access to digital resources across the academic network as a whole.


The first part of the research with special libraries involved an approach to a number of librarians who were asked to complete a questionnaire intended to gather base-line information. This covered the use those libraries were making of the Internet, and potential barriers, threats and opportunities that the librarians could identify to their participation in digital library developments.

The participating libraries were from a range of national and regional social welfare agencies, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the National Children's Bureau, the Policy Studies Institute, and the London Voluntary Services Council. The libraries surveyed were found to have library databases and a range of "free" and fee-earning services. A small number had published their databases on CD-ROM, but few had had input into the construction of their organisations' website (where one had been developed).

Focus Groups

Following on from the initial questionnaires, a focus group was held to which a number of librarians were invited. All librarians who had participated in the questionnaire phase of the project expressed an interest in attending, and a dozen were invited and accepted. Last minute cancellations reduced the number of participants on the day to six.

The librarians were asked the following question:

What are the main issues to be faced by Library and Information Staff in Special Libraries in promoting and developing digital libraries?"

They were invited to record their replies individually and then to pool the results. They were then asked to select five issues each and to prioritise these by awarding points from 5 (most important) down to 1 (fifth issue). The issues identified and scores awarded were (in order of decreasing priority) the following:

  1. Funding of the whole project [13]
  2. Staffing skills; relevant expertise [11]
  3. Access and connectivity [10]
  4. Managerial attitudes - "wasting time surfing" and changing managerial attitudes [9]
  5. Constantly changing - keeping up to date [8]
  6. Cost and problems in obtaining the information you retrieve [7]
  7. User education [6]
  8. Outside University system: feel excluded (from JANET) [6]
  9. Quality of the information on the Internet (compared with e.g. Medline) [5]
  10. Staff time taken to do searches [4]
  11. General staff expectations - "Everything is on the Internet" [4]
  12. Lack of technical knowledge and difficulties in keeping up with changes [3]
  13. Identification of valuable and reliable sources [2]
  14. Time (to develop system) [2]
  15. Security problems
  16. No longer have hard copies to thumb through
  17. Ownership issues: libraries having to work with IT
  18. How long stuff will be archived
  19. Electronic copyright
  20. Attitudes of publishers and Library System developers : they assume that the Internet is already developed
  21. Changing role of Librarians as teachers
  22. Medium within which material is archived (technology constantly changing)
  23. How to organise information collected (Bookmarks)

Those items which received most votes were looked at in greater detail.


Funding was the top-ranked issue and involved the following concerns:

Skills Development and Training

The librarians identified substantial unmet training needs. There were problems concerning training of information staff and developing their skills and expertise where staff had some competence, resulting in packaged training being inappropriate. They saw part of the answer as focused (customised) off-site training. The librarians also discussed the problem of managing the transition from manual to IT-based information systems and of providing appropriate training when staff were operating in both worlds - "maintaining the old and exploiting the new".

Managerial Attitudes

The librarians pointed to external pressures as increasing the demand for IT application and suggested that it had to be "sold" to managers in terms of "business critical" issues. They also drew attention to unreal management expectations - the media building up a picture of the Internet as containing all the information that is needed and where "everything is free".

Operating Costs

This discussion led the librarians into a more detailed discussion of operating costs (as distinct from the larger financial issues already discussed) including:

Access and Connectivity

Predictably, access and connectivity issues were raised>


The librarians saw themselves as living in a world of constant change which required continuous education through workshops, electronic groups, and other means. Keeping up to date with changes was difficult.


The Focus Group enabled a range of key issues to be identified and discussed in some detail. Participants shared an interest in digital library developments, but were able to outline a range of obstacles, whether the libraries in question were at the very initial stages of utilising the Internet and other resources, or were in fact more developed - to the extent of publishing their own databases on CD-ROM.

The potential for working co-operatively at various levels to address these issues, and the potential for more co-ordinated networking across the social welfare library sector was identified.

The next stage in the project is to share the issues outlines from the Focus Group with a larger group of participants in an effort to develop a co-ordinated strategic framework for the social welfare library sector.

More on the Project

 The research project "Digital Libraries, Special Libraries and Practitioners", was funded by British Library Research and Innovation Centre, under their Digital Libraries Programme. Further information and background reading about the project is available from, and about the Digital Libraries programme at

©1997 Mark Watson, David Streatfield

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