Career Strategies for Librarians
Working for a Vendor: a Lesser-Known Way to Enter the Business
by Karin Kugel
My title is Customer Service Bibliographer, but I like to think of myself as a detective. I don’t think you can
work in a customer service-related field if you aren’t able to approach incongruities and anomalies as
puzzles rather than problems. While my line of work is not the sort where a life is on the line, we deal
with panicked acquisitions librarians who, hard as it may be to believe, are not always the most rational
people after a long day of having selectors breathing down their necks. Often you’ll hear an incredulous
cry from a nearby cubicle, “It’s a book! Only a book!” as a bibliographer reacts to an anxiety-ridden email
about the last pre-pub offer from Oxford. We have a saying at YBP that consoles us in time of crisis:
“There is no such thing as bibliographic emergency.”
I cannot speak for all vendors, having only limited experience, so I won’t try. My experience at YBP Library
Services has been an education and an initiation into the world of library science. I have had the unique
opportunity to work directly with librarians all over the country, and my work has been varied, challenging
and inspiring. My job has allowed me to contribute creatively to new product development and even write
for our online magazine. In my position, it has been possible to leave my work at the office at the end of
the day, though the politics and the gossip occasionally come home. One of most exciting benefits of my
job has been the hefty discount on books, music and DVDs (which I certainly have abused).
I came to YBP fresh out of college, having just reached the unfortunate conclusion that while playwriting
had been a fabulous major in school, there were few, if any, job openings for playwrights, and certainly
none that offered health insurance. Somehow I’d missed that part of freshmen orientation. I had never
considered being a librarian, but my student loans were knocking at my door and my parents’ health
insurance company had begun sending me scary letters about COBRA. I scanned the newspaper
looking for something that didn’t involve a uniform and fast food, and the next thing I knew I was drafting
a cover letter to YBP. “Sure, I know all about libraries,” I told them. After all, I had worked in NYU’s Bobst
Library Circulation as a work study student. Furthermore, being an avid reader, I had used libraries my
entire life. I loved libraries. I loved books. It was a paycheck. It seemed like a perfect match.
It was a good match for me, but it was not until much later that I realized how good. I came to YBP not
knowing that book vendors existed, much less what they did, but after my first year of learning, stumbling
and growing, I had found my niche. I found myself able to express my opinion, make changes and
actually be heard. There were days that I was excited about my job, and just like any job, there were days
when five o’clock would never come. My experience at YBP has inspired me to pursue my MLIS. As I write
this article, I am about to leave my position to attend the University of Pittsburgh School of Information
Sciences. My colleagues have been very supportive, and while I know I have a place here should I want
to return, I also feel that the knowledge I’ve gained would make me an asset to any academic library
acquisitions department should I choose to go that route. I now know most of the jobs in acquisitions
inside and out. Having that sense of the big picture and having worked with everyone from directors to
student assistants are things I would not have had the opportunity to do had I worked in a single library.
Working in one library at a specific job would have taught me one way of doing things. Working with over
60 libraries, each with different budgets, workflows, and collection needs, has prepared me for almost
One of the major pieces of my job is working with approval plans. YBP’s approval plans are essentially a
set of computer rules or descriptors that define a library’s collection parameters. For instance, a rule
may be: “Give me every book about dogs, except I don’t want books about beagles or anything with a
legal aspect. If it’s a book about dogs in a country other than the US just send me a notification slip
because we are more selective about those.”
Every book that YBP handles on approval is “profiled” or described in a database by a person who is
holding the book in his or her hand. Because the book is in front of him, the profiler can follow very
specific instructions and also make judgment calls as to the quality of the book and which audience
would find it most useful. For instance, one of our customers has a very specific interest in all
publications with any relation to gambling. By actually perusing the book, the profiler can determine if the
book has any mention of gambling, even if it is only a small piece that might not get mentioned in a
publisher’s blurb. This can be a very interesting job if you love books and enjoy solitary work.
In my job, I handle customers in four states. Because I deal with the same libraries over and over, I am
able to form relationships with them and also anticipate their needs. I enjoy that our territories are
assigned geographically because it allows an interesting mix of libraries. I work with law schools and
universities, community colleges and art museums, seminaries and liberal arts colleges. I also work
with libraries with big budgets and large staffs at the same time that I am working with small one-person
A Typical Day
On a daily basis, the first thing I do when I come to work is check is my email. Various messages
infiltrate my inbox, and every day is different, but on a typical day, I may have the following emails and
One of my customers is missing a book from a shipment. I have to navigate the computer system to find
out if anything looks strange and then check with the departments the book went through (for instance,
our physical processing department). I then check with UPS to see if anything went wrong with the box in
transit. If all that proves fruitless, I may have to compare the weight of the books to the weight of the box
that arrived. I tend to think of myself as a lawyer preparing a case. I need to convince my supervisor the
book didn’t get there and anything I can use in my case will help.
Another library wants to know why we profiled a book as Advanced Academic instead of General
Academic. I need to see if I can find a copy of the book in our warehouse and look at it myself to make a
judgment call. If that’s not possible, I need to consult with the person who profiled the book to see if he
or she can remember why he or she made the decision they did.
An art museum library has an extra $1,000 to spend on books about art and pop culture in the 1980’s
and wants us to generate a list for them to select from or to change their profile to allow more books.
The functional specifications are in for the eBook integration project I’ve been a part of, and I need to
review them to make sure they meet our customers’ needs before they get reviewed by our developers.
A new member of the consortium we are working with needs phone training on Gobi (our Global Online
Bibliographic Information system) so she can place an order.
A book review is due soon.
One of my customers can’t log in to Gobi. I need to figure out if she has a pop-up blocker and if so, how
to disable it for our website. This customer is not computer-literate so I need to walk her through the
steps over the phone.
A university library wants me to run an access report to pull up all the volumes of a series they haven’t yet
A seminary library would like to me cancel an item they have on order because they received a gift copy.
There’s a meeting at 3 pm to talk about our progress with a consortium whose business we’re trying to
A community college received a box with books they don’t recall ordering and it has no invoice. I need to
track down who the box was meant for and make sure they are notified, and get a prepaid shipping label
to cover the cost of the return. I also need to make sure this customer isn’t missing a box they were
supposed to get.
There’s a training session at 11 am about our new rush service.
A law school library wants to know why their approval plan allowed a book about law and mad cow
disease. They’d like me to revise their profile to exclude all books that fall into this area.
One of my university libraries received a book where the index ends at the letter ”P” .They would like me
to find out if the index should end in “P” or if they are missing pages.
Another school wants to know if and when a book they ordered will be published.
Once I’ve checked my email and phone messages, it’s up to me to determine how and when I want to
deal with it all. My phone will keep ringing and my email will keep coming in throughout the day, but that’s
what makes my job interesting.
What I enjoy most about my job is communicating with the same group of clients and developing
relationships with them. I’m a social person, and I wouldn’t be happy in a call center environment. I also
enjoy my coworkers. People who are drawn to work with books are often a little bit quirky, but they’re also
an intelligent, interesting crowd. I really enjoy being involved in new development initiatives and working
on a project from the ground up. Some people can’t stand meetings, but I thrive on the collaboration and
creative thinking a meeting requires.
Working for a vendor has its downfalls. After all, if I loved my job completely, I wouldn’t be leaving. One of
the things that drives me the craziest is the number of levels of management. Trying to get something
changed for the better can be really frustrating as I must go through my team leader and then through my
manager and then through the vice president of operations at which points the sales department might
get involved… you get the picture. This applies to both little and big things, and sometimes bad
decisions and policies are made as a result.
Another thing that grates on me is office politics, and they are alive and thriving at my company (as they
are at most). Navigating these waters can be treacherous, but I’ve found things will go smoothly enough
if you are considerate and cautious. Working as the customer’s advocate means I’m often the bearer of
bad news, and no one likes the person who always finds the problems and mistakes. This works both
ways. I’m also the person who has to say no to a customer when we can’t fix something. If you’re not
someone who can be really diplomatic and charming, or if you’re really sensitive, customer service may
not be the position for you. My job requires a lot of patience, especially when I am training customers on
our online database. It’s hard enough to teach computer-phobic people how to use a program in person,
but it’s really tricky to do it over the phone.
I’ve had wonderful customers who make smile every time I hear their voice on the phone, and I’ve had
customers demand the impossible. In general, librarians are good people to work with, but everyone
has their bad days. As a customer myself I’ve certainly taken my frustration out on customer service
people before. That’s part of the job. For the most part, I’ve found the people I work with to be interesting,
understanding and very polite.
I do miss working with patrons. There is something very satisfying about helping someone locate
information that they are really intrigued by. It is easier to lose sight of who the books are actually for and
what they contain when I spend so much time dealing with them as physical objects.
To be the best librarian, a person must know a little about a lot of things. Working for a book vendor can
round out a librarian’s prior work experience and give insight into acquisitions processes. Vendors have
larger budgets to invest in new initiatives and in employees than many libraries do. Working for a vendor
can be a valuable learning experience for a librarian who is looking for something different or for a new
librarian who wants to break into the field.
About the Author:
Karin Kugel worked at YBP Library Services for two and half years before leaving this past August to
attend the School Library Certification Program full time. This is part of the School of Information
Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh where she was offered a graduate assistantship. In addition to
full-time study, Karin has the amazing opportunity to be working as an intern with St. Vincent College and
Family Communications, Inc. helping to prepare and index Fred Rogers’ archives for the Fred M. Rogers
Center. She currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and rambunctious dog, Hadley.
Article published Nov 2005
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.