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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > July / August 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 7 — July/August 2003
How To Hire The Right Consultant For Your Library
By Alexander Cohen and Elaine Cohen

So you are about to embark on a new project. Although you would like to do the planning, setup, and execution yourself, you can't—it is beyond your staff's normal workload, and you're on a tight schedule. In this situation, a quality, specialized consultant can make your project a reality. He or she can deliver specific work or a specific product in a shorter time frame than is possible in-house. But with a strict budget and so many consultants to choose from, how do you find the right one?

There are many types of consultants, and their expertise can focus on different types of libraries, on IT, on Web sites, on space planning, on fundraising, or on other disciplines. Library consultants are either librarians who have developed their expertise by running or working in libraries, or they are people from outside the field who have specific knowledge relevant to libraries and information systems. (We are part of the second group.)

For more than 35 years our firm, Aaron Cohen Associates, Ltd., has been in the library consulting business. Drawing on our experience, we've put together a step-by-step plan for selecting the consultant that meets your library's specific needs. As we see it, there are five basic things you need to do to prepare to hire a consultant: clarify the scope of work and the type of consultant needed, break the project into phases, outline the schedule and deliverables for each phase, know how much time and money are available for the consultant's services to be performed, and define your staff's involvement. Then you're ready to take the necessary steps to finding the perfect one: 1) set up your criteria; 2) make a list of available consultants; 3) submit your Request for Proposal or Request for Qualifications; and 4) build consensus between staff, management, and the consultant regarding the project's goals and implementation.

What a Consultant Can Do

The more experienced and knowledgeable consultants can act as technical expediters and political activists. As technical expediters they can guide the administration in the right direction while performing chores that staff does not know how to accomplish or cannot perform because of insufficient time and energy. As political activists, consultants can ask the embarrassing questions and take the heat. A good consultant can be strategically used in the political process to advance any number of controversial causes. For example, the staff may know what to do, but cannot convince upper management, trustees, or funding sources to follow its ideas, or that the projects warrant their support. Librarians can use their consultants' expertise and credentials to build consensus. And once management does give its consent, the projects nearly always go forward.

It is easy to hire a consultant, but not as easy to get the proper fit unless you know exactly what that fit must be.

Knowing What You Want

It is important to begin by setting up your criteria. Knowing exactly what youwant the consultant to accomplish is something you must establish before you begin the hiring process.

What do you need done? Do you need one—and only one—task to be performed or is the job more complicated? Do you need a professional, one who is certified by the state and carries liability insurance? (Insurance is a big problem for many individual practitioners, who often have to request that it be waived.) Should the person or consulting firm be required to have many years' experience on the job, especially when it comes to managing groups of people, or is the task simple enough that just setting up shop will do?

What is your turnaround time? It is good to ask for a 3-month turnaround for results, and a good consultant should have no problem meeting this deadline. However, we have found that some projects need more time because upper management, trustees, or university administration needs to run a series of meetings before each sign-off can occur. Or perhaps the situation warrants far more than a change of a few operations. For larger tasks, such as an intricate digitization project, the deadline could be several years away.

In some cases, the project is much more complex than library staff initially realized. Perhaps the Request for Proposal was for a step-by-step strategic plan, but before the consultant can develop this plan, he or she sees that a host of problems must first be addressed. Indeed, there have been times when we were hired to perform one task, but upon arrival were directed to perform another. In some cases, the encumbered funds were limited and the original project was threatened with stalling. When this happens, whether because of insufficient funds or lack of political will, a good consultant can break the project down and offer a new initial phase that is easy to implement. As in any organization, it is important to show success early in the process. The idea is to "get the ball rolling." Unfortunately, the hard choices, the ones that have to be postponed for several years, may eventually be performed in haste.

Choosing the Right Consultant for the Job

Where do you start looking? Most people use word-of-mouth. They ask their peers about their consultants. (Was the specific work accomplished properly and on time? Was it well-received?) Another source is the lists maintained by various state agencies; libraries; and national, state, and local library associations. You can find experts' lists on specific subject matters on the Web. Some of them are maintained by publishers and by universities. (See the sidebar: To Start Your Search for the Right Consultant.)

Contact your prospects and explain what you're looking for. Then, to narrow down your choices, there are the four major questions to ask:

• Do you understand the project?

• Do you have the subject matter expertise and qualifications relevant to the project?

• What is your methodology/work plan to accomplish these tasks?

• Do you (and your staff) have sufficient time to meet our deadline?

Depending upon the institution and your "sign-off" ability, you may be able to hire a favored consultant directly. More often than not, the regulations of your funding body will require a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or Request for Proposal (RFP) to be sent to several consultants. You should have a budget in mind, and the RFP should reflect that budget. All too often clients with very small budgets have large project requirements and are disappointed by the bids they receive. It is also typical for libraries to undertake technical projects where staff has little understanding of the scope of work, and for the resulting bids to request payment for additional changes. These changes are often undocumented during the bidding stage and affect the bottom line—the schedule, resources, and cost.

In the case of an RFQ, the fee may be set in advance. The idea is to create a short list of consultants that best fit the agenda, interview them—either in person or by telephone—and then check their references. In the case of the RFP, the lowest bidder wins, provided the lowest bidder indicates in the proposal that there is sufficient expertise to perform the required tasks, and the references check out. Sometimes you can send an RFQ to qualified individuals or companies in advance of an RFP to weed the list of competitors. At this point you can create a short list of candidates and interview them to ascertain if they really understand the project agenda. Whether you need to set up an in-person interview may depend upon how large the job is and how much money is at stake.

Several library associations and state libraries maintain sample RFQs and RFPs so that you can get a good idea about how to write one. If you are in an academic, public, government, or corporate library, your institution or funding agency's purchasing department may use a standard form to which you append a narrative explaining the work you want the consultant to do. At times, you may have to change the form because the task has requirements that are somewhat different from standard work. We sometimes receive standard forms that are really meant for contractors and not library consultants, because the purchasing agent has never worked with a consultant. (For example, building contractors often are required to be bonded, for liability purposes. A library consultant almost never is.)

Working Together to Get the Best Results

For small and preplanning projects such as writing needs assessments, requirements specifications, and long- and short-term building programs, most consultants believe that the number of meetings should be limited. However, we have found that it is important to set up a process to meet physically as well as to connect with one another over the Internet. Our clients normally have access to extranet information to help the process move along and to share information such as documents and calendars.

Building consensus for a plan is an important aspect of making a library project successful, and one we had to learn the hard way. Twenty-five years ago we installed one of the first "e-Commons" in an academic library. Although the director gave us the go-ahead, the staff was not involved in the process. Libraries were for books, not computers, they said. Within a few months, the director received a vote of no confidence and was forced to leave, and the e-Commons was removed. We feelthis might have been avoided with more staff buy-in and involvement.

Adding operations or deleting long-standing ones needs input and involvement, so that each staff member has a say in the future of his or her organization. A small cadre of administrative executives can make the ultimate decisions, but the rest of the staff needs to feel that it was involved in both the process and the solution. The impact is at once managerial and financial. This is why for certain projects it's important to choose a consultant with strong interpersonal (listening) skills.

Working with many different people and groups requires hours dedicated to moving the project forward, and that's where a good consultant really pays off. He or she may have to hold many hands, but to paraphrase a very effective congressman named Lyndon Johnson: If you want to win, you must do everything.

When you embark on a project that's bound to change the culture at your library, you need someone who can help everyone who's involved to understand the change. You also need someone who can provide decisive but understanding counsel during the process. If you are lucky, you are that person. But sometimes that person is a consultant who works along with you. And sometimes it is the consultant's job to take full responsibility for the project. Using these steps will help ensure that the consultant you choose is the right one to get your project done properly.

[Editor's Note: See page 62 in this issue for a listing of library consultants.]

To Start Your Search For the Right Consultant








Alexander Cohen, a library IT consultant, is Aaron Cohen Associates' senior project manager. He has extensive technical training from the PMI (Project Management Institute), Novell (networking), Microsoft (software development training), and Sun (object-oriented programming and development). Alexander balances his information management experience in technical automation projects with his long apprenticeship in the library services field. Elaine Cohen is senior author and management consultant for Aaron Cohen Associates, with more than 35 years' experience working in the library field. She has written books, chapters, and articles on library space planning and design. The Aaron Cohen & Associates, Ltd. Web site is
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