November 22, 2017

Negotiating Librarianship | Peer to Peer Review

Kevin L. SmithEvery year I do a short presentation about negotiation during the course I coteach with my colleague Will Cross on legal issues for librarians at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science. And every year, that presentation elicits a large number of questions and exposes considerable anxiety among these new librarians about negotiating, first on their own behalf as they seek employment, and then as negotiation becomes a regular part of their professional lives. I also recently had a conversation with seasoned librarians about license principles and how to use them in negotiations and detected some of the same hesitations I later saw in students.

There is, of course, considerable literature on negotiation, including some that focuses on libraries; one of my favorite pieces is a short guide from the American Association of Law Libraries. But much of the literature on negotiation is either business or law focused and so may be off-putting to some in our profession. So I want to offer a few observations on negotiating in a library context. As I tell our students, the standard advice is rather obvious and even a little trite. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to internalize these simple principles at leisure so that they’ll form a reflexive background to our thinking when we’re in a real, live negotiation.

Nice Negotiators Finish First

One obstacle to good negotiating tactics for many librarians, I believe, is the desire to be nice. As befits a profession based on sharing and service, librarians are often people who want to be helpful, friendly, and liked. This can seem at odds with the stereotypical image of a “pit bull” lawyer or businessperson who shreds opponents on the way to “winning” a negotiation at the expense of the folks on the other side of the table. The problem here is not with librarians who don’t want to be aggressive or mean, it is with a stereotypical view of negotiating tactics. In study after study of legal negotiation, being nice has been shown to be a successful strategy. Lawyers who are perceived as friendly and cooperative actually get what they want from negotiations more often than lawyers who are perceived as aggressive or competitive. The same is true in studies of success in litigation.

So if it is true that many librarians do not want to be aggressive in negotiating—which is, after all, itself a stereotype—this trait should be seen as a tactical strength, not a drawback. Such librarians do not need to step outside their comfort zone to be effective negotiators; a calm and collaborative approach is actually more likely to succeed than trying to breathe fire at the other party. Hardball is seldom a good game to play; “be nice” is usually better advice for the negotiator, especially when a pleasant demeanor is coupled with good preparation and a sound understanding of the goals the library wants to achieve in the negotiation.

Be Prepared

Such preparation is key to overcoming the second stumbling block I think librarians can encounter in negotiating: a desire to resolve one issue at a time. One example would be an approach that focuses exclusively on price and leaves other issues to be resolved if and when the cost is settled. This is short-sighted and limits creativity because an important tactic in negotiation is tying together terms so that a concession in one place can be offset by a gain somewhere else. For example, I recently spoke with a librarian who complained that a vendor her library had long done business with, under a license that was renewed year after year, now wanted a new license that would remove the ability to use the resource for interlibrary loan (ILL). She could not, she told me, get the vendor to budge on this. I suggested that she say something like: “since we will be losing a use that is important to us, and the value of the product is thereby reduced, let’s discuss a price reduction.” Conversely, a higher price demand should be accompanied by a real increase in value to the library, not simply extra titles that the library does not need. That value might be found in myriad contractual provisions, such as improved usage rights, a longer term, concessions on incremental price increases over future years, or whatever else is important to the library.

The keys to making such connections are preparation and a sound understanding of how the resource under consideration fits into the library’s overall service plan and the needs of its users. It is common negotiation advice, for example in the classic book Getting to Yes, to talk about interests rather than positions, and this kind of flexibility offers an example of interest-based negotiation. When the vendor says “the price is $40K” and the library responds “we can only pay $35K,” this is position-based argument. It moves to interest-based negotiation when one party suggests that $40K might work if there were more flexible rules about use, or if regular reports about usage statistics were included. Such maneuvering, even including concessions, is part of the process of negotiating based on what the library needs or wants to come away with overall, with a goal of fulfilling as much of that need as possible.

Understand the Alternatives

The third stumbling block in library negotiations is, I fear, the hardest to shift. In one recent conversation, the library negotiator I spoke with ended her complaint with “the thing is, we have to do it; a faculty member wants it.” Far too often, libraries believe they have no alternative to capitulation in negotiations with vendors because, in the end, we must complete the purchase. This belief is fatal to good negotiation; all negotiators should have in mind what the literature calls the BATNA: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It is almost never true that a library must subscribe to a particular product. There are competitor databases; open resources; ILL. One of our core roles as librarians is to locate information resources and that skill can be used to locate alternative resources when a negotiation does fail. There is even the option of going back to the faculty members or department that asked for the resource and explaining why it was impossible to purchase. (This should always be followed by suggestions for alternative ways to advance the research or teaching goal behind the request.)

Libraries are entrusted with a significant chunk of our institutions’ resources, and our professional obligation is to be good stewards. Negotiation is part of that responsibility. Failed negotiations are not personal defeats; they are simply business decisions.

Negotiation is not rocket science, and it is not war. It is simply a discussion between two parties about the possibility of a mutually beneficial agreement. If an agreement cannot be reached, both simply look for alternatives. Having these discussions successfully requires a calm approach, careful preparation, awareness of multiple paths for discussion, and a thoughtful plan for alternative arrangements if they become necessary. All of these are well within a librarian’s grasp.

Kevin L. Smith About Kevin L. Smith

As Duke University’s first Director of Scholarly Communications, Kevin Smith’s ( principal role is to teach and advise faculty, administrators and students about copyright,intellectual property licensing and scholarly publishing. He is a librarian and an attorney (admitted to the bar in Ohio and North Carolina) and also holds a graduate degree in religion from Yale University. Smith serves on Duke’s Intellectual Property Board, Digital Futures Task Force and Open Access Advisory Panel. He is also currently the vice chair of the ACRL’s Scholarly Communications Committee. His highly-regarded blog on scholarly communications discusses copyright and publication in academia, and he is a frequent speaker on those topics.



  1. Very useful, Kevin, thank you. I would hope that all LIS collection management course include discussions on negotiation, too.