Debora Hodgson kindly shares the results of her survey of the Special Library Association conducted as part of her Master’s degree with the Centre for Information Science, City University London.

The rise of digital technologies and digital content has greatly impacted all libraries but their effect on special libraries has not been investigated to same extent as that of academic and public libraries. I conducted a survey to discover the impact of digital technologies on Special libraries in the UK during August 2013. The aim of the research was to discover what factors have influenced the uptake of digital technologies and content in special libraries with a particular focus on discovering whether the subject covered by a special library has influenced the uptake of digital technologies.


A survey was chosen as the method to reach out to special librarians in the UK because it allowed quantitative data to be collected and for comparisons to be made with previous research in this sector. The questionnaire consisted of 16 open and closed questions and was designed to identify what factors have influenced the uptake of digital technologies and to determine how digital the respondents special libraries were.

The questionnaire was emailed out to UK based members of the Special Library Association in August 2013 and was open for responses for two weeks, with responses collected using Survey Monkey. The survey achieved 36 responses and a response rate of 23%. Most respondents worked in special libraries which covered corporate finance, business, medical, law or pharmaceutical libraries and had libraries that were not open to the general public.

Key findings

47% of respondents described their library as hybrid libraries, combining digital and physical resources with a physical location.

39% answered they had a digital library with just 14% indicating they had an electronic library with very few digital resources which have to be accessed on an individual basis. Interestingly not all of the libraries who covered the same subject described their libraries in the same way indicating that subject may not be an important factor determining the impact of digital technologies.

The digital transition for special libraries open to the general public has been slower than for those not open to the public. This is partially explained by a lack of distinct user group which has made the negotiation for digital content  harder and by the inability of these libraries to be able to predict usage patterns for digital content.

63% of the 30 respondents who answered the question on the content of their libraries indicated that they still had some physical resources in their libraries with 43% of these respondents expecting some of these resources to still form part of their collections in 5 years.  E–Journals rather than E-books are the dominant digital format across these special libraries. The platforms needed for E-books and the expense of individual E-book purchase and lack of demand for E-books when physical books are available were listed as reasons why E-books have not been taken up at the same rate as E-journals

Over half of those who responded to the survey indicated that over 80% of the content in their libraries is digital content. Most respondents indicated that this transition to digital content had happened over the last 5 years. They expected the percentage of digital content to continue to significantly increase in the next 5 years as a result of the familiarity of library users with the technologies and their demand for their availability. Of those libraries that indicated they had less than 50% of digital resources, 60% were open to the general public.

Web 2.0 technologies are being used by 78% of the 28 respondents who answered the question in the questionnaire. RSS feeds were the first of the Web 2.0 technologies to be adopted by the sector and is the most widely used technology across the sector today. Respondents indicated an expected decline in use of the majority of Web 2.0 technologies in the next 5 years as other technologies come to prominence.


Whilst my  research  cannot be used to generalise about the whole of the special library sector in the UK it has discovered trends within the sector that could be further investigated. I did not reach special libraries that have disappeared as a result of digital technologies instead it represents those special libraries that have survived in the digital age through adaptation in some cases and through specialisation in others. My research indicates that the impact of digital technologies has not been universal across the whole of the UK special library sector. Whilst digital resources make up an increasing percentage of the total resources of special libraries, they do not yet account for 100% of resources.

Special libraries that are part of corporations with a geographically dispersed user group are far more digital than those special libraries that are charitable libraries who serve a wider less defined user group.

Special libraries which have a well-defined user groups and are not open to the general public tend to have almost entirely digital content whereas those open to the public are less digital because of issues with licensing content for this diverse user group.  User demand has been a key factor in the uptake of digital content as users want to be able to access library resources remotely and the digital content makes this possible. Libraries that indicated they were not entirely digital today highlight that they expect to take increasing amounts of digital content in the next five years  and will increase their digital presence to make it easier for their users to access their content.

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2 comments on “Survey results on the impact of digital technologies on UK Special libraries”

  1. Robert

    It is true that special libraries are increasingly using digital technologies to increase their visibility. I also work in a special library and I am observing this trend too.

  2. K. Bender independent researcher

    Thank you for this interesting survey. It is remarkable that ‘art libraries’ were not among most of your respondents. Another confirmation of the fact that the ‘humanities’ are lagging in the digital age?

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