Working With Library Consultants

Hiring and working with consultants for your library is all about finding the "best fit". Directors are in the best position to know their staff's strengths and weaknesses, their Board's priorities and perspectives, and their library's needs. What are you looking for in a consultant? To manage a complex process or project that staff members don't have time or expertise to complete? To develop mediated solutions to contentious challenges?

In our experience, skilled consultants bring much-needed objectivity and fresh perspectives to the following areas of library operations:

  • Personnel: reviewing policies, salary scales, compensation
  • Recruiting and hiring leadership staff
  • Strategic planning
  • Technology infrastructure and training
  • Fundraising
  • Financial and accounting systems
  • Analyzing and improving workflows and productivity
  • Marketing and public relations
  • Facilities construction, renovation, and management

How do you make sure you are getting the help you need?

Write a clear RFP.  Have someone outside the library read it to ensure it is jargon-free and easy to understand. Explain the goals of the work, the activities, outcomes, deliverables, and all rules for responses such as date, time, etc. Having a q-and-a meeting (and allow for Go-to Meeting or a teleconference to ensure distance is not a barrier to bidding). Designate one contact person for questions ensures the best responses.  Read some procurement pointers in Ivy Library’s Vendors are Human Too blog.

Do your homework and budget adequately for the work. Reaching out to prospective bidders for some ballpark pricing and input into crafting a reasonable RFP is worthwhile. Make sure you explain that any assistance given in advance does not guarantee they will receive the work in a competitive environment.

Do not expect consultants to give away their expertise free or for no-profit; they need to make a living too.

Select with objectivity. If a board member or donor is pushing a particular consultant, make sure you have additional trustees, staff, or community members involved in the selection process for objectivity and transparency.

Communicate a budget range. Some organizations feel that revealing a budget ensures non-competitive pricing. However, being completely uncommunicative about your financial resources can result in sticker-shock bids. I have had success by communicating a budget ceiling while emphasizing the importance of fair pricing and its relative weight in the final selection of consultants.

Allow RFP responses to have options and add-ons. It benefits your organization to be able to pick and choose from a variety of activities, especially if prices come in higher than expected.

Evaluate consultant experiences and track record in the specific area of need. Call references and ask probing questions.

Don't assume that "bigger is better,” or conversely, that large firms charge more for similar quality. Individuals may not have high overhead while larger firms have more resources and expertise on deck.

Make sure you are clear about costs and expenses. I have sometimes overlooked the costs of travel, copying, communications, and meeting expenses, among others.

Make sure you agree on deadlines and milestones and respect the fact that consultants have other clients - not just you.

Define communications and meeting expectations. When do you expect face-to-face vs. conference calls or web meetings?

Consider the project team. Make sure you know who will be assigned to your project and consider how their personality fits the team. You and your team are likely to have many hours of intense and tiring work with the consultant. Ask yourself - would I enjoy sharing a beer or movie with these folks? I tend to work best with consultants who are energetic, positive, good listeners, and show real interest in our library. I have continued to stay in touch with my favorite consultants for mutual benefit and learning, because I paid attention during selection to our compatibility.

Communicate RFP process expectations. If your library must issue an RFP through a municipal or other similar public authority, respect the procurement officer's role but communicate clearly your expectations for the process.

Selection committees don't have to be democratically composed. Steer clear of naysayers and obstructionists. Include your most talented, energetic, and interested. This is a great opportunity to provide a "rising star" with an engaging project.