The Librarian's Guide to Negotiation

This Ain’t a Reference Interview, It’s a Negotiation

It is easy to look at negotiation as a skill that is only really important for librarians who purchase resources or deal with budget matters. As a rank and file reference librarian or cataloger, the ability to negotiate successfully may seem like something that would be nice, but isn’t crucial, to your day to day activities. But that’s where you would be wrong.

As long as there have been librarians, those librarians have negotiated every day as part of their regular job duties. Our ability to negotiate well can have a direct effect on our productivity at core tasks. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the reference interview.

Let me give you an example. Imagine a patron coming to a service desk: “Do you have any books on how Captain Kirk in the first Star Trek movie is like Hamlet?” After the librarian gets over the initial question they want to ask (“What the – ?”), s/he begins to negotiate with the patron to tease out the essential qualities of their information need. Does it have to be book or would a journal article or website be acceptable as these latter resources might be more likely to cover such a narrowly focused comparison? How about works of general criticism about Hamlet and/or the first Star Trek movie so that the patron could make the comparison? And so on.

For me, this example is more than just a semi-silly reference question because I had a high school English teacher (and trekkie) who actually made her students write this very paper every year and we were required to have outside sources to support our arguments. I feel certain that many a librarian at my high school’s library and at the public library across the street from my high school saw this question coming each fall. My fellow students and I were involved in a careful negotiation with those librarians. We had an idea of what we wanted (two “magic bullet” books that were exactly on the topic of Hamlet and Captain Kirk) and the librarians knew what might actually be available in their collection (criticism of Hamlet, film criticism of Star Trek, in many forms, including books, reference materials and journal articles). With time and understanding, both parties would get want they want: the student would get some usable outside sources for their paper and the librarian would get a satisfied customer.

So, the next time you work with a patron to tackle a thorny reference question or discuss with a fellow librarian the best way to catalog to a new electronic resource, remember that you are involved in a careful negotiation, the goal of which is for everyone to come out a well-informed winner.

About Jill Grogg

Jill E. Grogg is the eresources librarian at the University of Alabama Libraries. She has published widely on topics such as reference linking, eresource management, digital libraries, and negotiation in a variety of publications, including Searcher, College & Research Libraries, Computers in Libraries, and The Serials Librarian. Her work has been cited both inside and outside her field, including in Science. She is a member of the editorial board of Serials Review and has presented nationally and internationally. She has an MS in information science from the University of Tennessee (2001), where she was mentored by Dr. Carol Tenopir. She also has an MA in English from the University of Mississippi (1998).

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