Earlier this month, regional library cooperatives SOLINET and PALINET finalized and approved plans to merge. PALINET served libraries throughout the mid-atlantic and SOLINET was based on the southeast, so the new combined organization (to be named Lyrasis) will beone of the largest and most influential library cooperatives in the country.
SOLINET's executive director Kate Nevins was kind enough to agree to an e-mail interview with us. She helps explain how this merger came to fruition, and what it will mean in terms of service, technology and the reach of the new organization.
Dan Freeman: What was the origin of this merger? Did it come about quickly, or has it been in the works for some time?
Kate Nevins: Both--the merger to create Lyrasis has been in the works for some time, and it also came about quickly.
It has been in the works for “some time” because the Boards and staffs of both SOLINET and PALINET have been attuned for several years to developments in our field and the environment. They have been considering the direction of future services for members. This includes the opportunity to develop and implement new programs in response to member needs and technological developments, to assess the value of programs, and to rethink our service model in a web-based distributed library community.
Perhaps most important was our consideration of the potential synergies in library cooperation from both larger scale and local touch. A larger, more diversified organization creates increased capacity for innovation, broader opportunities for networking and community building, higher visibility with funding agencies and other strategic partners, increased leverage with vendors, and elimination of duplication. These benefits of scale are mirrored by the benefits of local touch. We have seriously considered the question, “When does regional and local connection matter?” Even in a web-based distributed world, it’s clear that people want to retain connection to local and regional community and activities. Lyrasis is committed to carrying forward the strong relationships, programs, and activities that have played such a critical role in effective cooperation. This includes continued support for such organizations and initiatives as the HBCU Library Alliance, the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries (ASERL), state based e-resource licensing like that conducted by PALINET for Maryland libraries, and close work with state libraries in support of public libraries. Lyrasis is unique in combining the power of large scale with a commitment to local and regional programming.
The merger also came about “quickly” because the Boards focused on the importance of a new, merged organization for members. The Boards have moved swiftly to put us on an ambitious merger path. Lyrasis, the new combined SOLINET and PALINET, is effective on April 1, 2009, only two months after the approval of the membership.. We are looking forward to celebrating this exciting date! Our new web site at www.lyrasis.org is the place to track of all the latest developments.
DF: How did the economic crisis affect the merger?
KN: The SOLINET and PALINET Boards identified the merger as a potential strategy for the future for many reasons, including the challenging economic environment. While this was not the initial motivation when we began considering this in January 2008, recent changes in the economy have created an even stronger need for libraries to work together. Therefore, the Boards focused on two key financial objectives. First, we are committed to good economic stewardship of members’ resources. In tough financial times, library service organizations must provide maximum program and service benefit while controlling costs. SOLINET and PALINET identified ways to reduce costs further while also expanding service through consolidation and elimination of duplication, and through redirecting member resources to future library needs. Second, the Boards sought to develop a new financial model for library cooperative organizations. The viability of Lyrasis, and our ability to continue to meet libraries’ program and product needs, is strongly dependent on new financial realities and service models. Proactively developing financially viable service models was a major impetus for pursuing this merger.
DF: Can you speak a bit about how the merger will change the service provided by each organization? What are going to be the biggest advantages of the merger? The biggest challenges?
KN: This is a great question. One of the biggest advantages is that the merger of SOLINET and PALINET into Lyrasis will have a major impact on extending and expanding the services we offer. Board members and staff agree that the goal of merging is not simply to be bigger while doing only the same things we have always done. Lyrasis will extend services for members in several ways. Both PALINET and SOLINET currently have unique services and programs, and we are immediately extending these to all members of the new Lyrasis. For example, this means that all members will now have access to PALINET’s innovative program of mass digitization and SOLINET’s nationally recognized preservation and disaster preparedness programming. All members will now have access to our combined catalog of professional development and training and to the consolidated array of e-resource licenses as negotiated by each organization. We are intent on rapid introduction of new programs and services. The Boards have directed Lyrasis to create a fund to support innovation and new program development. This new capacity will be used to evaluate, develop, and implement services of value to members now and in the future. Under consideration are initiatives related to collection development and management, increased digital programs, open source applications, leadership development, and education for the transformation of our profession and institutions. Lyrasis plans an active program of member involvement in the brainstorming and development of new service programs.
One of the challenges we have in libraries, and in our library cooperatives as well, is that we are all running full tilt ahead. We are providing services to our communities and keeping on top of the latest developments, while pushing forward with innovation and change as time allows. Lyrasis embraces the opportunity to act as a think tank for members, as a venue for the discussion of ideas for the future, and as a developer and provider of innovative services. While our resources are limited, we plan to use them with a full force focus on innovation. Cathy Wilt, PALINET’s Executive Director, will lead this effort as Lyrasis’ President for Innovation and Performance.
We don’t lack for challenges, a condition we share with our members. One challenge is maintaining a high level of member connection and engagement as we create new programs and service models. I once heard some one say, “Library cooperation is a contact sport.” We remain committed to a high level of contact, and this contact must be effective. By this I mean that Lyrasis must understand the needs of our members, engage members in decision-making and direction setting for the organization, have a very real presence in members’ facilities and with their staffs, and remain active in state and regional cooperative programs.
DF: Let's talk about technology. What are the key technological advantages and challenges created by the merger?
KN: Let me respond to a variation on your question: how is the creation of Lyrasis supported by technology? The ubiquity of distributed technology and the resulting ease of delivery of service and creation of community across a geographically dispersed membership enable Lyrasis to create new service models. We can serve libraries who were not previously enfranchised in our memberships. Many of our current programs, such as education and professional development, leadership development, and discounted access to e-resources, are supported and even extended through distributed technology. Moreover, while extending the reach of services and the enfranchisement of libraries, technology will bring Lyrasis even closer to individual members and groups of members. We will use the power of technology to customize services such as training programs for specific needs, to create community and dialogue around shared member interests both specific and broad, and to build our knowledge about the environment and opportunities for library collaboration in all corners of the Lyrasis membership. And, we will use a variety of technology tools to ensure a smooth transition and continuity of service as members migrate from PALINET and SOLINET to Lyrasis.
DF: Both Palinet and Solinet provided consulting that helped libraries figure out how to best make technology work for them. With the merger, you'll be serving a huge area and a huge population. Is Lyrasis as a whole better-equipped to provide these services than Solinet and Palinet combined?
KN: One of the things I am most excited about in the creation of Lyrasis is the way the merged organization will be able to extend the reach and richness of both PALINET and SOLINET’s library consulting programs. The expertise and capabilities of our staff are among our most impressive assets, and the impact of my colleagues’ consulting with libraries has been so positive. There are several ways that this effectiveness will be enhanced as SOLINET and PALINET become Lyrasis. Members will see a significant increase in the availability of staff expertise and consulting programs and topics. SOLINET and PALINET share some areas of consulting expertise, but we also offer many unique subject areas. Under Lyrasis, libraries will have access to the full range of consulting topics offered by our combined organization, such as the digitization consulting successfully provided by PALINET and the technical services reengineering consulting provided widely by SOLINET. Both PALINET and SOLINET collaborate with a range of consultants, and our “stable” of consultants is enhanced through bringing it together under Lyrasis. We are actively working to increase our partnerships with additional industry experts and leaders. Lyrasis is exploring ways in which technology can be used to extend the availability of consulting services, serve the needs of multiple libraries simultaneously, and utilize Web 2.0 tools to support library community-based consulting. We see many opportunities to work with members to diversify current consulting models.
At the same time that our formal consulting program expands, members will continue to have easy access to immediate answers and advice. This “mini-consulting” can address a wide range of questions from, “We had a water leak. How do I dry wet books?” to “Where can I find some one to digitize my oral history tapes?” The expertise of our combined staff will ensure that Lyrasis continues PALINET and SOLINET’s tradition of helping libraries “figure things out.”