Sep 02 2008

The Procurement Librarian

Published by rachel at 9:08 am under alternative careers, skills

by Amanda Myers Echterling

When I was in library school, my peers and I chuckled about the strange library/information science names of our courses: Cataloging as “Information Description,” Reference as “User Services.” The labels felt silly, since we knew this was really information from librarians for librarians. At that time, I took for granted the universal need for our truly singular education.

Last year, wonderful personal events made it necessary for me to relocate from my job as an acquisitions librarian at a public university. As we all know, it can be challenging to find a librarian position in a limited geographical area in a limited amount of time. So, I evaluated what I really wanted, and decided that at a minimum I wanted to stay in higher education. I reflected on my likes and dislikes in my previous librarian positions. Prior to working in acquisitions, I was a reference and instruction librarian. In the “big switch” from public to technical services, I liked learning the business side of libraries, but I missed helping patrons with research.

Faced with yet another career move, this time I decided my ideal new position would have fewer managerial responsibilities and more interaction with users. I also wanted a position that would not look like a stall out or back step in terms of professional development. Then, I broadened my job search. When I came across a job ad looking for someone to maintain documentation and records, create and implement a training program, and provide customer service to a variety of departments on campus and to vendors, I thought, “gee that sounds familiar.” Welcome to Public Purchasing, also known as procurement.

Same as it ever was

I was immediately struck by how similar Procurement Services is to librarianship. Both professions work with needs: librarians with information needs and procurement employees with goods and services needs. Since the process of public buying using government mandated procedures is foreign to all end users, procurement officers use the reference interview — ultimately matching the user’s need for, say, lab beakers to the most effective procurement process. Like librarian subject specialists, procurement officers have their expert commodities. When beginning a solicitation, they often have to do background research to define the department’s need and correspondingly define what vendors exist that can fill that need. As an academic librarian, I had no idea that business directories were still so important.

My responsibility in Procurement Services is coordination of contract administration. I support the department’s mainly purchasing-oriented staff and the university at large by organizing and developing access tools to our contract collection. The main priority of my job though, is assisting the contract administrators across campus. My biggest project has been developing and teaching a training program to the campus departments about how to effectively read and utilize their contracts.

Transferable skills

Everything I do in Procurement Services comes back to my Library Science education. There are the obvious correlations, like the classification and description of the contracts and the development of the search database. However, the most important skills are the least overt, namely my orientation toward information access and information seeking. Since we are a public agency, the information in the department is largely public information. In fact, as with library consortia, there is a strong movement in public purchasing to write cooperative contracts. This environment benefits from librarianship’s systems approach to information. So, instead of reacting to an information need, like dismantling and photocopying a contract file every time another agency asks for it, I work with my peers to identify information that needs to be essentially “on reserve.” It is this systems orientation to information access, the anticipation of information needs, which is unique to our training.

The other important library science skill I utilize in this alternative profession is information literacy. After being shown how a contract is pieced together and where I can reasonably expect to find information within the contract, regardless of its subject, I can find, and assist others in finding, specific information within that contract. This is the same deductive reasoning we use for reference questions. Likewise, even when the information is not in its expected location, I find that I can skim a contract, like skimming results in an article database, looking for keywords or phrases that catch my attention.  We teach information literacy to our end users in libraries; and I teach a variation of it in my contract administration course. However, when applied outside of the library, I realize how rare and valuable this kind of thinking is.

What I miss and what I want

Since contract administration is so very similar to librarianship, I find myself missing things that as a librarian I found mundane, or even cumbersome. For example, a check-out feature in the contract database for those files that are in someone’s office. Or using an ERM to describe and hold and tickle for the contract documents. (ILS vendors, I see a new line of business!) I also miss the professional networking. If you do not work for a library vendor, library, or information firm, then your interests lean toward academic discussions of the effect of Web 2.0 on information seeking, licensing pilot projects like SERU, best practices in reference services, and the latest development and disputes of information literacy.

Even while I miss the professional networking, though, the true litmus test for traveling down an alternativee career path comes when other opportunities arise. Librarian positions have come up, but I return to my list of desired qualities. Do I want to mange a large staff? Do I want to be a subject specialist librarian in a field other than my own? Do I want to teach multiple sessions of information literacy five days a week? Surprisingly, thus far, contract administration utilizes more of my skills than some librarian positions, and I find myself being choosy. After all, the library is one of the departments I support, so I never feel too far removed.

If I were to ask my coworkers, I’m sure they would say they did not know they needed a librarian until they got one. Librarian as a brand is not going to bust open any doors. So, it is up to us as uniquely trained individuals to pitch our skill set.  Broaden your job search. Look for positions that align with the type of library you want to work for. School systems, local and state governments, and of course higher education all have procurement. They all have other library allied professions too, but you don’t know until you search for a job based on desired skills, not just the desired organization.

When I think about those library school course names now, I chuckle again — this time at how right they are to be labeled so broadly. All organizations, not just libraries, need someone who can serve and educate users, describe information, and be good humored enough to be the punch line of a few shush-ing jokes.

Amanda Myers Echterling, MLS, is the University Contracts Administrator for James Madison University. Along with other paradigms from librarianship, she brought to Procurement Services acronym-speak and is currently coining new acronyms in contract administration — to the bafflement of her colleagues.

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