What We Do, What We Know, and Why We Matter

In a 1964 case involving the screening of a controversial French film, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart memorably said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Thanks to SLA’s Competencies for Information Professionals, we can say that we know a special librarian by what she does, what she knows, and why she matters.


The competencies, which were updated recently by an SLA task force chaired by David Shumaker, describe the skills and knowledge special librarians possess and the services they provide. They are of two types: core competencies, which are unique to information professionals, and enabling competencies, which complement the core competencies but which are shared by professionals in other fields.

“The core competencies are critically important, because they differentiate information professionals from other types of professionals,” Shumaker writes in the July-August issue of Information Outlook. “By applying our core competencies to the needs of our organizations and communities, information professionals create value—value that we alone are capable of creating.”

The competencies are intended to be used not just by information professionals but also library school students and faculty, employers, and others who are interested in the application of information, knowledge, and data to the functioning of organizations. They touch on areas as diverse as developing search and retrieval strategies, assessing the veracity of information sources, implementing archival programs, and modeling ethical behavior.

“If you’re a student or prospective student, the competencies describe what you’ll learn in an academic program in librarianship, information science, or a related discipline,” Shumaker writes. “If you’re a professor in the library and information science field, the competencies provide a framework to help shape the curriculum—they define what your program teaches that other departments and disciplines do not. If you’re a working professional, the competencies are a guide to your professional development, helping you determine whether to explore new areas or build on your current strengths. Finally, we can all use the competencies to explain to our managers, human resource professionals, and others what librarians and information professionals do and why they need to hire us!”

To learn more about the competencies and how special librarians can use them to further their own success as well as that of their organizations or clients, read the article.

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