Bias, Objectivity and Authority

2007 June 22
by Karen

Sarah Houghton-Jan (Librarian in Black) has a great piece concerning accepting vendor perks and bias. Sarah says lots of good things in this post, but one place where I respectfully disagree with her is just how objective we really can be. Truthfully I don’t think we can be objective. So much of our opinions and judgments are based on experience and everyone’s experience is different so it creates different biases in each of us. Personally, I don’t strive for objectivity because I know I won’t get there; instead I try to be honest about my biases. I believe that Lawrence Lessig was thinking similar things when he put together his Disclosure Statement/Statement of Principle. Reading what Lessig posted got me thinking that I’d like to post something similar here (when I find the time).

When I deal with vendors I judge them by the quality of their products and the services they provide. One piece of good service is listening to your customers and trying to make improvements based on their feedback. Gathering this feedback results in what Sarah calls schmooze, but I think that this is necessary. I like talking to vendors because it gives me ideas and just because I do business with a vendor doesn’t mean I’m not willing to criticize them. I bring my frank, honest, and tenacious nature to every interaction I have with a vendor regardless of who is picking up the tab. Christina seems to agree with me on this front. To make informed decisions we have to interact with vendors and get information, this often entails schmoozing but we still think critically about things and ask tough questions in order to make the best choice for our users.

Sarah also talks about bias and professional writing. At the moment I do much of my writing and speaking for cash (Info Today and Library Journal providing funding of late). Does that make me less of trusted authority? I don’t think so. But if I write or talk about something and you think that my opinion is being completely clouded by who is paying the bills feel free to tell me and we can have a lively discussion.

In truth I believe that most of my biases come from life experiences not from potential or real financial gain. I’ve always worked for academic libraries at state institutions. I have experience (good and bad) with particular vendors: Ex Libris, Serial Solutions, Innovative, to name a few. This shapes my opinion much more than who is footing the bill. I try not to be afraid to “bite the hand that feeds me”. If I think I see and organization doing something wrong, irrational, or unfair, I speak up.

None of us can be truly objective. All we can do is try to and be honest about what our influences and not be afraid to speak our minds.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. 2007 June 22

    I think one of the things that the librarianinblack post misses is that it assumes the vendor/client is one-sided and that the client is the only one swayed by friendship or likability. Sure, the vendor rep is a salesperson, but I would assert that their regard for you (the client) endears you to them on an interpersonal level. They can be swayed to make a better deal based on their friendship with you – it’s a two-way street.

    You need to have an honest rapport with the vendor from the start and tell them what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s the only way both sides can be truly happy. If you get sold a pile of crap, you’re going to tell every librarian that will listen about the pile of crap. Your happiness and your positive word of mouth still have value. In the vendors I’ve dealt with, they understand that I will be brutally honest, and I feel they respect that.

    I’ve also had some very good meals at their expense – I still sleep well at night!

  2. 2007 July 2

    I’m happy to be disagreed with on this, but I think many people are reading more into my post than is actually there. And a lot of people haven’t even read the original post, and are just going off of the comments others make. You can certainly talk with a vendor. You have to in order to get stuff. You can certainly write for a journal that pays you. But is the journal telling you to write about a particular topic, perhaps one that shows their sister companies in a favorable light? Or is the vendor buying you dinner and giving you gifts to try to get you to buy their product? This is where I have a problem. And I agree–one can’t be perfectly objective. I never said that one could. It’s impossible. But there certainly are things that reduce one’s objectivity. That was my point.

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