Saturday, 19 January 2013

Ethics of Vendors Having Direct Communications with Patrons

I was sitting in a meeting with a sales rep from a library information resource vendor when he mentioned that his sales visits were quite different in the past.  He would spend all day on campus, talking with faculty, handing out brochures, giving demos of his products, etc.  He went on to say how he could help us with promoting his products within our institution, with premade emails with links, graphics, brochures, etc.

This made me think:  academic libraries, and particularly mine, I think, have a hard time "getting the word" out about the products that we add to our collection.  It always difficult to know which resources to promote and how exactly to do so.  We want them to know and appreciate the value of the collection but we don't want to overstep our bounds and become pushy sales staff in the minds of our faculty and students.  Even if we knew which and how, it's a question of time and staffing:  there are so many things that we all have to do, promotion tends to get put to the bottom.

But it's always in the best interest of the company that we acquired the products from that our patrons use them more.  We collection statistics and how and how often these resources are used and these numbers tend to inform our decisions on whether to renew, cancel or change our subscriptions, and even if we should get more products from the same vendor.  Why don't we allow vendors to provide training to our patrons?  Why don't we want vendors to communicate with faculty, pushing new and old products?  Why don't we let them take some of the work of letting our patrons know what we have and what we could have?

Some of the answers are obvious:  vendors are biased.  Librarians like to think that we're a little more objective when it comes to the various products that are available.  Allowing vendors to promote directly to the users would be the difference between deciding on a car by reading Consumer Reports or by watching car commercials.  Yes, the producers may know more about their products but they don't always say it all.  They will always fib a little.  But is this such a bad thing?  We all know salespeople lie, so maybe the value of the increased information would outweigh the hopefully slight misrepresentations.

Also, vendors want to sell new products.  This is fine and good when they are talking with the people who have control of the money that will be spent on them and are experienced in managing similar products.  But librarians find that when faculty know about new products, however they find out about them, they tend to pester us with requests for products that we can't afford, can't use, or are not going to be valuable to anyone else.  This wastes our time and harms our relationship with our patrons.  But again, maybe this shouldn't be the end of the discussion.  Perhaps by having to deal with these issues, faculty and other users on campus can learn more about the nature of acquisition of these resources, that immediately perceived use isn't the end of the analysis, and that things are much more complicated in the library than they may think.  And maybe "waste of time" is the price we pay to have a more involved faculty.

Finally, I think one of the reasons we don't let vendors train users directly is a bit of fear for our own jobs.  If a ProQuest-paid instructor can teach how to use ABI/INFORM Complete, what's left for the info lit librarian to do?  Well, actually I think we SHOULDN'T be teaching how to use interfaces, but rather general search strategies regardless of interface, judging quality of sources, etc.  Just as staff are short when it comes to promotion efforts, many libraries don't have enough instructors to teach all the students frequently enough. Why not let the vendors lighten the load where they can?  There is plenty of instruction to go around.

Perhaps there are other reasons why we should or should not allow vendors direct communicative access to our users.  What do you think?

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