Special libraries are distinct from the kind of libraries you have in schools, public libraries or national libraries. They are also distinct from online listings of, for example, Jeffery’s Bay property or houses for sale in Soweto: instead, special libraries are places where the books and resources on a specific field and nothing else, save for a few dailies, are kept. In short, specific libraries are medical, law, engineering, , new, history, and non-profit libraries. Many of the special libraries around the world including South Africa are not open to the general public but permission may be requested through the librarian or on the library’s online account.
Special libraries are also called information centres but basically operate the same way a public library is run with one main exception. If a member of a special library is unable to visit the library for his or her resource needs, a request may be submitted to the librarian for the information to be sent to them instead via electronic mail or special delivery.
In South Africa, the problem the government and civic leaders faced after the apartheid period was not really about special libraries but access even to regular libraries. Libraries carried a certain stature that kept many South Africans away. At the same time, the libraries that did exist in townships were sadly lacking and poor. In a study conducted recently, only 1& of South African buy books regularly and 14% read book regularly. In a nutshell, South Africans generally do not read books, even if it is the user manual of their new Nikon CoolPix camera.
Thus, for professionals or those studying to be professionals, sometimes their only recourse for information regarding their specialty are the special libraries. Under the International Library Associations, only the LIASA also known as the Library and Information Association of South Africa in Pretoria is listed. This is a non-profit organization, unlike the hotels in Cape Town, that set up offices in 1997 and has its own Special Libraries Interest Group (LISLIG). Some of the members in LISLIG are from special libraries across the country like:
- High Court Library in Gauteng
- SA Astronomical Observatory in Gauteng
- National English Literacy Museum in Eastern Cape
- Cory Library for Historical Research in Eastern Cape
- Free State Education Library
- Ethekwini Electricity Library in KwaZulu-Natal
- Centre for Conflict Resolution in Western Cape
Many of libraries depend on private donations to survive and can barely meet their budgets. However, they are a source of inspiration because they provide a service that would otherwise not be available in the country.
There is an ongoing debate about encouraging special libraries to commercialize their service in order to help transform the country from a non-reading population to one that loves books and learning. One argument that has been put forward is that many South Africans would rather spend on chewing gum and candy than in buying or borrowing books. This has driven the cost of printing books up because the demand is low so publishers would rather print less.
Special libraries in the area of science and technology could be used as a national resource. The original South African Library Association (SALA) tried to initiate a cooperation scheme between libraries in 1957. SALA has since been replaced by South African Institute for Library and Information Sciences (SAILIS). By 1967, a consensus by South African leaders was agreed upon that specialized national libraries are needed. At that time, the commercialization of special libraries and cooperation was lauded and actually became successful.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case today. During the period of cooperation and sharing, many smaller special private libraries cut back on ordering new material since it would just be a duplication of what is available in the specialized national libraries. Now, they have to scramble to find these information and publications – often at higher expense since they have to be ordered overseas.