While the concept and term 'special library' came into use only in the early 1900s, the very first libraries in the world were what we would today recognize as special libraries.
The physical structures have long since disappeared, but archaeologists and historians have evidence of libraries in the areas of present-day Iraq and Egypt dating as far back as 2700 BC. The libraries of the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations arose from the increasing complexity of government and sophisticated religious doctrine. In 1987, a team of archaeologists unearthed clay tablets made by the Sumerians which provide insight into what government documents of the time may have entailed. The tablets, more than one thousand of them, "inventoried the royal wine supply, tracked the deployment of spies in warfare, calculated taxes and contained correspondence between regional kings" (Fourie and Dowell 16). The sophistication of religion would have required priests to record and preserve doctrine, as well as teachings, sacred laws, observances, rituals and creation stories to pass on to future generations. It is not surprising that the libraries of ancient Egypt were part of the temple, and that the librarian was also the "high priest of the temple and acolyte of one or more gods" (Shuman 10-11).
The first library in Montreal , dating to 1659, was that of the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal. One historian of libraries considers this library, along with the majority of the early Montreal libraries identified by Yvan Lamonde, a special library (McNally 26). Indeed, a glance through Lamonde's study reveals an early and incredibly rich history of special libraries in the city: Bibliothèque du Presbytère Notre-Dame (fin du 17 e siècle); Bibliothèque du 26 e Régiment (1778); Montreal Medical Institution Library (1823); Library of the Natural History Society of Montreal (1825); Bibliothèque des Avocats et du Barreau de Montréal (1828); Mercantile Library Association of Montreal (1842); Library of the Bank of Montreal (1859); Montreal Art Association Library (1881); Hebrew Library (1888); Library of the New York Life Insurance Co. (1889); Library of the Montreal Philatelists (1894); Architectural Association of the Province of Quebec (1900); Canadian Society of Civil Engineers (1900).
By 1980, about 56% of all Montreal libraries were special libraries; owing largely to this, the province of Quebec boasted 25% of the Canadian total (McNally 27). This is a reflection of the "strong and sustained growth of an economy which required information and could support institutions to collect and disseminate it . and the emergence of a special library consciousness" within the province (McNally 26).
Fourie, Denise K. And Dowell, David R. Libraries in the Information Age: An Introduction and Career Exploration , Greenwood Village, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 2002.
Lamonde, Yvan. Les Bibliothèques de Collectivités à Montréal, 17e-19e Siècle: Sources et Problèmes. Montréal, Québec: Ministère des affaires culturelles, Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 1979.
McNally, P. (1982, May). Fifty years of special libraries in Montreal and Eastern Canada, 1932-1982. Eastern Canada Chapter Bulletin 47(4):26-30.
Shuman, Bruce A. Foundations and Issues in Library and Information Science. Englewood , CO : Libraries Unlimited, 1992.