The Care and Feeding of Vendors
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
In the June 2010 issue of a sister publication, Information Today newspaper, my UpFront With Barbara Quint column identifies the four key characteristics I thought a “perfect” library vendor should have: vision (“vendors who take the long view, who practice long-term strategic thinking, and support that thinking with action and commitment”); shared goals (“provide everyone with the best information, not just the immediate client constituency”); universality (“servicing the needs of end users throughout their lives and across their ranges of interests”); and friendly but firm (“keep reminding us, even nagging us, to be all that we can be”).
That last one, in particular, goes both ways. How can we info pros working for clients, especially those of us working in libraries with still influential budgets, push, prod, coax, urge, nudge, nag, coerce, lure, whatever, our vendor partners toward the light?
Frankly, I’ve had more than one argument over the years with information industry executives who blamed librarians for the slow development of their services. They contended that they couldn’t launch innovative products and alternative business models because their hide-bound clients (naturally, that was not their terminology, but the idea was clear) would not support change. I grew indignant but couldn’t completely deny the charge, since librarians, like most people, are not interchangeable lightbulbs. Some librarians working in some environments and reporting to some supervisorial masters might clutch the familiar a bit too closely. On the other hand, I can also recall conversations with vendor executives who seemed to see it as a violation of their inalienable rights when a librarian looked for a cheaper version of their product. They grew shocked and indignant when librarians started sniffing around versions of products aimed at end users with end-user pricing.
Let’s face the facts here: In this Google world in which we all must operate these days, staying alive and solvent and employed is no easy task for information industry vendors. It isn’t exactly a slam-dunk for librarians either. But it’s a change-or-die world. You see information industry players bickering about who gets exclusive access to this or that periodical title. And then you look up and see a major publisher like McGraw-Hill selling off a “biblical” title like Business Week and a trade publisher like Reed Business Information just shutting down 23 trade press journals, some quite venerable. It makes quarrels between full-text licensors look less like arguing about who gets to sit up front in the lifeboats on the Titanic and more like who gets to use the shuffleboard set after the lifeboats are gone.
We need strategies that can take us into the future if we’re going to have a future. We need strategies that are realistic in evaluating what that future will look like. And we all need to pull together to make those strategies succeed.
One of the more interesting developments coming from library vendors these days is the discovery service. These tools enable libraries to lodge a one-stop shopping button on their websites for searching — at least — across the data sources that a library licenses. The four major discovery services are ProQuest/Serials Solutions’ Summon, EBSCO Discovery Services, Ex Libris’ Primo, and OCLC’s WorldCat Local. Each of the services has different features, different content coverage, different goals. But one thing bothers me about all of them. They are all clearly aiming most of their marketing at academic libraries, plus some large public and institutional libraries. Academic libraries do the broadest licensing, so — logically — these institutions form the most useful base for a cross-database service. But the marketing for all these services tends to hinge on the “We Love Libraries” theme: “Maximize your library’s delivery to your library’s patrons.” Or, “Let’s show the world how much it needs libraries.”
Several of the discovery services do not reach beyond licensed sources. No delivery of open web content. No open access publishing sources. Academic librarians use the web, reach out for open access content, and conduct instruction in using all relevant tools. Why? Because the prime directive of professional ethics for librarians is to serve the clients’ needs. Academic librarians have an enhanced role in this regard. They build collections and programs around the curricular needs of their clientele. An academic library is meant to teach students what sources exist, how these sources are structured, and how to use them successfully in their postgraduate endeavors — probably for the rest of their working lives.
Yet the discovery services, as far as I can see, have no bridges into the postgraduate world. Once the students graduate, POOF! Perhaps they will be able to acquire an alumni password, but since contract clauses for the underlying databases are often very restrictive (almost silly sometimes), how solid even that connection will be remains dubious. Now one executive at a top-of-the-line discovery service said that there were plans in the long run to do something about this, but since the underlying databases had no postgraduate promotions in place, I suspect that the planning was pretty far down the road.
Here’s a perfect example of where we can show vendors the true path. We can be friendly but firm, demonstrate our own goals, and ask them to share in our vision of universal access. Failure to supply a bridge to postgraduate use
of resources constitutes a deal-breaker on academic library commitment to discovery services. Move that long-range planning to the top of the agenda, not someday maybe. Good librarians worry more about their clients’ needs than their own image. Smart librarians know that a good image only comes from worrying about clients’ needs. Good, smart vendors should know the same.