Working with Non-Traditional Information Vendors

The following piece by Jacob Sayward of Fordham University School of Law was originally published in the May 2012 CRIV Sheet (v. 34, No 3):

Like many librarians, I spend much of my workday dealing with “traditional” information vendors. For law librarians, these traditional information vendors will include West, LexisNexis, Wolters Kluwer, and their affiliates and subsidiaries. They will also include the smaller, independent legal publishers still out there, the non-legal publishers from whom my library buys materials, and the providers of electronic databases and journals to which my library subscribes. These interactions still offer plenty of surprises on a regular basis, but by now there is at least an established playbook for my relations with all of them, thanks to the wisdom and experience of thousands of my librarian colleagues. Getting the most out of my relationship with non-traditional information vendors is often more difficult.

 It is not the most precise definition, but by non-traditional information vendors I essentially mean the providers of services that improve our collection’s maintenance and access (as opposed to the providers of our collection’s actual materials). Cassidy Cataloging Services provides my library with MARC records for a wide variety of holdings. Innovative Interfaces is behind our Integrated Library System. Our A-to-Z Journal List is hosted by and administered through Serials Solutions, and as the administrator of my library’s A-to-Z Journal List for the last four years I have gained quite a bit of experience in working with Serials Solutions.

 An A-to-Z Journal List is a website that serves as a library’s portal to its online journals. These journal lists tend to have more simple interfaces (compared to comprehensive catalogs, at least), and they are most effective when they convey the basic information a patron or user wants to immediately know about a particular online journal. Does the library subscribe to this journal in some format?  What are its coverage dates?  Through what database is the access?  Which patrons or users have access?  Within the law library world these journal lists are, with few exceptions, the provenance of academic law libraries. One of the biggest causes of frustration regarding the administration of our journal list is the fact that such a smaller subset of my colleagues have experience (or even interest) in the problems involved. In fact, the companies behind these journal lists seem to design them with larger university libraries in mind, so even within the context of academic law libraries I know we are, at best, a secondarily targeted customer base.

Problems with non-traditional information vendors often arise when their products necessarily interact with the publications of more traditional vendors. This is what they are designed to do, of course, but the intersection may lead to some poor customer service experiences. Anyone who has ever called a computer technical support line about hardware problems only to be told the problem is with the software (and then vice versa) may be familiar with the experience. I worked with Serials Solutions to create some new access for journals on law schools’ LexisNexis subscriptions, and the entire process took over two years. One company was always complaining that the other would not supply the necessary information, so I ended up having to get most of the required information and format it myself.

My experiences working with Serials Solutions have taught me a few things about working with non-traditional information vendors. The same patience and persistence that help in so many other matters (including our relations with traditional information vendors) are important. Non-traditional information vendors may also be less experienced with or invested in their law library customers, so it sometimes takes extra effort to get them to take notice or understand our issues.

At the same time, some non-traditional information vendors make up for some of these “inherent” problems by deciding they will be the ones to go the extra mile. Innovative Interfaces, perhaps owing to its long history with law libraries, has one of the largest footprints at AALL’s Annual Meeting. Serials Solutions, in contrast, stopped attending our Annual Meeting several years ago.

If AALL’s members are not considering CRIV as a potential source of help for non-traditional information vendors in the same way that they consider it for more traditional information vendors, then that should change as well. The problem could be that they simply do not believe CRIV’s mandate covers their problems, or it could be that they do not make the connection to CRIV because they are unused to seeing CRIV cover these issues. If members consult CRIV or AALL’s Vendor Liaison more often on these topics, then the value they receive from CRIV and AALL’s Vendor Liaison will grow. Similarly, law librarians can try alternative avenues like the new Library Consumer Advocacy Caucus or LISVendor.info for help with non-traditional information vendors. The best course of action with a non-traditional information vendor like Serials Solutions might be to look at some of the success librarians have had organizing amongst themselves. There have been countless times I have wished that Serials Solutions had its own equivalent of the Innovative Law Users Group, so I would had easier access to all the other librarians who could share their Serials Solutions experiences and how they were able to solve problems with the company. As different as our relationships with non-traditional information vendors may be from our relationships with their more traditional counterparts, the best solutions to our problems with many of them will come from the same place: collaboration with our librarian colleagues.

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