It’s conference season (didn’t I just say something like that in last week’s round-up? I must be excited) and with that, exhibit hall season! Other people have shared advice on how to tackle the exhibit hall: restrain yourself from taking all the swag, plan ahead, don’t go hungry. Okay, this last is my own advice. Give-away chocolate is not a healthy breakfast. Or lunch. But did you know that sometimes people actually want to buy something that the vendors at the exhibit hall are selling? Crazy, right?
I had an enlightening experience at Computers in Libraries this spring. I take advantage of it being local and the sponsored exhibit hall passes to take a few hours off work and check things out, and then hang out with folks for dinner.* This year, I didn’t even have to take leave. I was looking for a book scanner for my office. More on that in a moment.
Last summer in my law librarianship class, one of the meetings was dedicated to budgets and contracts. This was when I learned more specifics than simply that Lexis and Westlaw are “very expensive.” I also learned that the reason I knew only that they are “very expensive” is because contracts with big vendors like these often include non-disclosure agreements. This allows vendors to maintain power in the relationship. Not that they wouldn’t have power otherwise.
I confess: I worked in an office that had been burned by a vendor. We had a contract for the vendor to create a database for us; he gave us the source code as required in the contract, but “out of the goodness of his heart” he made changes to the code after the contract had expired, and refused to give us that complete code. I don’t know why the original contract didn’t include a maintenance period following the first year of the contract, maybe it had to do with available funding, maybe it was an oversight, maybe it was malicious. I wasn’t there at the time. But we ended up needing significant changes to the program, and our internal tech folks couldn’t do it without complete documentation. So we considered entering into a new contract with the vendor, who was then able to quote an exorbitant amount, because he knew he had us over a barrel. It’s been three years and no changes have been made. Power.
Perhaps because of a recognition of this power dynamic, AALL has a Committee on Relations with Information Vendors. The existence of the committee, of course, does not solve all vendor relations problems. But the committee’s publication provides a forum for both vendors and librarians to share their experiences, and for librarians to see that they aren’t alone in their experiences.
Back to the book scanner. There were four vendors at CiL selling the same equipment, and I had wildly different experiences with each of them. One didn’t have any business cards with them. (Really?) One listened to my question and then began what was obviously a scripted shpiel that had nothing to do with my question, and when I asked him to show me what I had asked about, he refused. Seriously. Not “I can’t,” but “I won’t.” (He did catch my attention as I passed his booth another time, and then showed me what I was looking for.) One saw my school on my name badge, decided I worked at the library there, despite my telling him repeatedly that I’m a student, and that I was asking my question for my employer, which is NOT a library, and repeatedly told me that I should tell the library at my school to buy his product. (And to return his phone calls.) I don’t remember the fourth at all, but I think he was the one with peanut butter cups.
After all that, it turned out that if my office decides to go forward with buying a book scanner, it will likely be from the folks who didn’t have any business cards with them. Their product–it turns out that more important than the equipment is the software to accompany it–was not only the least expensive, but was also purchase-ready and didn’t require a special computer but instead could be connected to an existing PC. Plus, the salespeople were useful, answered my questions, and didn’t put on the hard sell. (Note to salespeople everywhere: if you pressure me, I’m a lot less likely to buy from you.)
What does this personal tale teach? Along with the very important lesson about software being the difference when looking at scanners–which was the most important thing I learned in the exhibit hall that day–it teaches to be as clear about your specific needs as you can be…and perhaps to use the exhibit hall for information gathering. Be aware that the vendors are there to sell you things, and they are going to try to sell them to you even if you don’t have purchasing authority, even if their product doesn’t do what you need it to do, even if you only stopped at their booth for a free mint. Stay strong, remain polite, and remember: Knowledge is Power.
*Next year: you’re all coming to Lauriol Plaza with me. And I’m not saying that just because it’s a block from my house.
What are your experiences with information vendors? Have you worked for a vendor? What advice can you share?