Column Editor: Scott A. Smith (Kent State University) <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Earlier this year my longtime friend and former colleague Forrest Link invited me to contribute an article to an issue of Against the Grain focusing on an exploration of the boundaries between librarians, vendors, and publishers by those of us who have crossed said boundaries. I happily agreed to do so.
Forrest represents a small but notable group of professionals whose career trajectories evolved more or less along these lines: these folks earned their MLS, may or may not have gone on to work in libraries for some time, but eventually found themselves working for vendors or publishers. In this context “vendor” can mean book vendors, serials agents, or systems vendors. Many vendors have long sought to recruit librarians, either because their experience helps inform business practice, lends credibility to their enterprise, or both. In a few instances, such as Forrest’s, members of this group have crossed back to the library side.
My experience mirrors that of a much smaller cadre: those of us who began our careers as vendors and only later returned to earn our library degrees. Another friend, Steve Bozich, now of Midwest, is one of only a few others I can think of whose story is similar to mine.
I spent nearly thirty years working for Blackwell’s, initially assisting in the administration of the approval plan, and later serving as a regional sales rep and manager in various parts of the world. In my first years with the firm I was fortunate to work for Don Stave, who along with Oliver Sitea created the approval program as we have come to know it for the Richard Abel Company. Don is a kind and generous soul who taught me much and was, as I think back, remarkably tolerant and patient. Don was working as a librarian in Washington State when Dick recruited him. Another former boss and alas departed dear friend, Jamie Galbraith, worked as a librarian before going on to a remarkable career in bookselling.
Many of these people belong to a generation whose professional careers were shaped by an unprecedented expansion of higher education and a corresponding, dramatic growth in the businesses that serve the academy. Companies like F. W. Faxon dominated their markets in the 1970s and seemed both permanent and indestructible. There were dozens of book dealers, serials agents, and systems vendors, large and small; their numbers assured employment for many. Who today remembers MacGregor, Boley, Ballen, Taylor-Carlisle, Franklin, Stevens & Brown, CLSI, NOTIS, or Data Phase, let alone Faxon or Abel?
The firms that survive were able to do so, in part, because of their ability to anticipate trends, to innovate, and to re-invent in the face of increasingly rapid changes in technology, an accelerating migration from print to digital, and a library market shaped by new forces and new players. Examples of such companies are EBSCO and Innovative Interfaces.
In light of these myriad changes, I decided to build upon my first career’s experience and return to library school. I graduated from Kent State’s School of Library and Information Science in May of this year, and I add my voice to this discussion as someone who represents vendors and librarians.
With that said, I’d like to offer the following observations:
1. There is a great deal of talent out here. Kent’s program is perhaps unusual in that there are fewer of what are politely referred to as “returning students” (i.e., old coots like me) and a lot of young and very bright people coming out of library school. Stephen Abram often talks about this generation and their skills, abilities, and predispositions. Their biggest disadvantages are the awful state of the job market, their sheer numbers, and their lack of experience. Listservs are abuzz with postings from frustrated job seekers struggling even to get initial interviews.
2. Libraries are overwhelmed with applicants. This is pretty obvious and not all that surprising. Combine lots of recent grads and scarce job opportunities, and you get a flood of applications for pretty much any job out there. Unfortunately, this leads to an inevitable process of elimination which by definition must be swift, imprecise, and in many cases ultimately unproductive for the prospective employer. Pedantic HR staff rush through checklists and discard those resumes and cover letters absent the most obvious qualifications. Politically correct criteria are invoked in an often naïve attempt to atone for the wrongs of the past and summarily disqualify candidates — based on revised but no less discriminatory standards.
3. Some in the library world fail to understand the value of vendor experience. This strikes me as odd because so much of acquisitions work is learned on the job and in interacting with publishers and vendors, and yet I’ve encountered this view more than once. Everyone benefits from a better understanding of the practices and culture of the other’s world.
It is also curious to me that some in the library world (and indeed a few of my instructors in my LIS experience) view the vendor community with some suspicion, as though to be affiliated with a commercial enterprise is to somehow be tainted. This view is both simplistic and wrongheaded. With the exception of only one, now rather dated, example of a company whose business practices caused libraries grief, this industry is remarkably absent graft and corruption.
My admittedly limited experience suggests libraries and vendors are, in fact, more alike than different. Any assembly of people engaged in some collective activity inevitably develops an organizational culture. I’ve been in more than one library where the workplace climate is both immediately evident and highly toxic. Conversely, not all vendors represent engines of brutal efficiency and highly-calculated, precise economic performance. Prior to the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in the UK (which, in effect, forbid discounting books and thereby guaranteed a solid profit margin for booksellers), Blackwell’s was an example of an overstaffed, bumbling, and somewhat paternalistic organization, but not one that could be characterized in any way as predatory. (A former colleague was fond of referring to the company as the “Bertie Wooster of the British book trade.”)
Instead, in my view people bring what they can and will to their jobs, be it enthusiasm, innovation, weariness, self-absorption, energy, or laziness. The climate and culture they encounter may inspire growth and change. If the work environment is too weak or unfocused it may exert no influence at all. If it’s really bad it can exacerbate the worst in people.
Whether it’s a casualty of my transit of middle age (i.e., can’t remember much of anything anymore) or a genuinely accurate perception of our world, I can’t say — but my sense of libraries and vendors is that, on the whole, we’re collections of people trying to do good work. To hearken back to my fellow Kent State students, these people bring an enormous amount of creativity, knowledge, and sheer eagerness to the table. I will be deeply saddened if this is wasted, whether it’s because of a poor economy, badly defined institutional priorities, or inept hiring practices. They and we all deserve far more.
Will it all work out? I can’t say. I just returned from a couple of weeks in Germany, and up until this trip I thought all the drama surrounding the debt crisis and the threat to the euro was hyperbole. After Cameron’s veto and the subsequent response throughout Europe I am compelled to revise my thinking, and consider what might happen if the Eurozone collapses. The consequences for the economies of many countries will be devastating, and the support for and opportunities offered by libraries will be severely jeopardized.
I’m more fortunate than many: I have a job, and I’ve had several offers from the vendor world as well as libraries. I have the relative luxury of being able to wait for the right position, instead of accepting the first (only?) opportunity. Others aren’t so lucky. My advice to prospective employers is this: take a little more time. Be a bit more creative in your thinking. Look beyond the two-dimensional description provided in response to your position announcement, and approach your pool with a more open mind. You’ll likely get a better hire.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.