Vol. 10 No. 10 — Nov/Dec 2002 
by Barbara Quint
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We modest souls here at Searcher magazine don't like to brag — (didn't your mothers ever teach you it's not polite to snicker?) — but, in case you haven't noticed, you've been getting your issues earlier in the month than in the past. In fact, in some cases, we have managed to ship out issues so much faster that some folks get them before the cover month has even commenced. In honor of that accomplishment, let me speak to you now as if the holiday season issue, the November/December Searcher you hold in your hand, arrived on Halloween, October 31st. In other words, before we start giving thanks or getting gifts or saluting the season to be jolly, let's try a little "Trick or Treat."

Information professionals are usually very benign personalities. Like any service professionals, they make their living accommodating the needs of others. Handling people and making them feel better for the experience becomes a habit and an asset. A particular combination of circumstances has traditionally made a nonthreatening, supportive attitude critical to serving clients effectively. For one thing, the information professional is a generalist by training and the client may well be a specialist, or at least need the expertise of a specialist. The generalist info pro walks a delicate line in securing client confidence, while, at the same time, not promising more than the pro can deliver. As if this didn't make the job tough enough, the conduct of the reference interview — the start of every client-to-info-pro encounter — must push through the innate resistance of every human being to admitting ignorance.

To accomplish their mission, skilled info pros usually try to create a sense of trust in the client for the commitment of the professional to do their best, even more than producing a sense of inevitable success. Above all, information professionals want clients to come back and so they work hard to create a pleasant and obliging image. And then there's the issue of learning to play well with others, i.e., working effectively with colleagues and supervisors. Here, too, one seeks a comfortable and pleasant status quo.

However, there are times when "nice" won't work, when "pleasant" leads to failure, when "benign" is malign. When those occasions arise, the information professional must recognize them, reach way down into the depths of their psyche, and, if necessary, turn into a mother (or son of a mother) that could win "Best of Show" at the Westminster Kennel Club's annual contest. Of course, when the judges and the moment of judgment have passed, we all revert to our natural canine lovableness; we become loyal, obedient, devoted, cuddly, and we turn around three times before lying down.

Such situations seem to arise more these days than in the past. This may stem partly from the changing role of the searcher. No longer does the individual searcher spend their day doing searches for client after client. While intermediated searching still occurs, more and more professional searchers have become leaders and monitors and "bookers" for communities of end-user searchers. The clients do their own searching, but the info pros license proprietary content, work out the interface technicalities with IT departments, teach clients how to search effectively and critically, and even monitor searcher success on behalf of the institution. All these tasks can require a rougher, tougher approach than the nurturing TLC of intermediated searching.

Negotiating a license offers a case in point. Effective negotiators recognize the essential combat underlying any negotiation. All too often, I have found librarians going into negotiations having already conceded a range of desirable terms in their own minds. Why? Because they "knew" the vendor wouldn't concede these terms, so they didn't want to look bad by bringing them up. It would be unprofessional. The vendor would think they didn't know the score. Wait a minute! Wait a minute! What's wrong with outlandish requests? It can throw the opposition off stride, make them fight against terms you never really expected to get, and therefore lure them into a feeling of victory that may have them end up giving you more than you could expect. Frankly, if your opposite in a negotiation looks totally comfortable and just loves you to death, those are pretty good signs that you're lousing up the negotiation. Comfort should be the reward of a successful outcome, not a precondition. My point is not that every negotiation strategy should involve making the vendor sweat, but no strategy planning should avoid that option just to "make nice." Unless you plan to quit your current employer under an ethical cloud and take a job with the vendor, you have no vested interest in avoiding some unpleasantness.

When you deal with the techies, the decision to go tough may arise again. If you have a pet techie or a wonderful relationship with the computer geeks in your institution, then keep them sweet. Shower them with info that helps them do their jobs better. Make them look good to their bosses. But if departmental relations are not of the best and the only techie that will talk to you at all apparently has purchased a hot-air balloon to insure that he can always talk down when he speaks with you, then the time may have come to take a harder line. Set up a surveillance to identify when techies start buying content. Almost inevitably techies will pay more attention to the quality of the software than the quality of the content — like deciding to drink anything as long as it comes in a pretty glass. In fact, without a broad awareness of client needs, much less the quality of sources, the techies probably lack the background knowledge to address quality issues. You make your move. Next thing they know, the techies have to clear all content decisions through you. And now, once again, you become nice, but from a position of strength — not so much nice as gracious.

As leader of the end-user searcher community, you may even have to play hard ball in dealing with clients. Monitoring client searching will give you a feeling for what they're doing without you. Putting feedback options throughout the interfaces will encourage end-user searchers to pass searches off to you when they are unhappy with their own results. Here you walk a delicate line. While you do not want to acquire the image of "company fink" nor to violate the librarian's ethic of client confidentiality, a duty to your employer may require you to make sure that the searches done by employees have enough reliability to support the decisions made based on their results. Rather than playing "tattletale," you may go to problem searchers you have identified and work out some training or offer to do searches for them. The problem searchers may recognize the iron hand in the velvet glove, but, if you can reach a successful outcome that protects both you and your clients, then everyone's happy; if not, so then...a glove comes off.

Oh, my heavens! Here comes Santa Claus riding a turkey! Time for us to put aside the ghoul costumes...but don't forget where you put yours. You may need it.

Barbara Quint's email address is:
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