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Notes from the Executive Director – December 2017

I love my job. After more than 20 years, I can say that I still find it challenging, rewarding, and fulfilling. Consortium work, of course, is not the same as library work, but we all have the same end goal in mind. We want a better educated citizenry. We want people to have access to books, video, and audio that entertain and inform them. We want programming for adults and children that is engaging and accessible. And we want to stay ahead of the technology curve. For all of us, that’s a big job. MCLS, like other consortia, exists to help individual libraries cooperate with each other and achieve more together than they can on their own. That’s what keeps me engaged.

My exposure to consortia came quite early in my career. It was in 1984, when I was a newly-minted reference librarian at Grace A. Dow Memorial Library in Midland, Michigan. I remember attending a meeting with librarians from around the region at Northwood Institute. The keynote speaker was Kevin Flaherty, Executive Director of the Michigan Library Consortium. He described the work that MLC did on behalf of member libraries, and I thought it all sounded pretty cool. Being the mid-80s, the cutting edge of technology in public libraries was online database searching through Dialog, BRS, and Orbit, all of which MLC brokered. MLC was the regional face for OCLC. Hearing from the executive director of an organization that was having a real impact on libraries and their information services to patrons quite impressed me.

Fast forward to 1995. In August, I became the new executive director at MLC. By that point, I had experience in other consortia, including a stint at OCLC. My work at OCLC taught me many things about the value of interlibrary cooperation, but it wasn’t until I worked at OHIONET and then MLC that I really understood the power of collaboration, which then was mostly concerned with group purchasing. MLC, like most consortia, was focused on providing access to information services and delivering training on how to use them. We worked hard to stay ahead of the curve and tried to be nimble enough to move in and out of services as needed by our members.

In the early 21st century, there was a great flowering of consortia as libraries banded together to negotiate with online database vendors and eJournal publishers. EBooks were to follow several years later. That provided MLC and INCOLSA, and later MCLS, a solid foundation on which to expand services that we had begun years earlier.

Lately, we’ve been seeing a shift. Back in 2013, we had a sense that something was changing among libraries in our region, and we needed a way to figure it out. That’s when we learned about the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. We embraced their framework for community engagement, and began to systematically ask libraries in Indiana and Michigan about their aspirations, the challenges they faced, and the conditions that needed to change. When we asked, librarians spoke. We learned a lot about their aspirations and frustrations. Some of it was around technology, still our bread and butter, but much was about relationships and building coalitions with other libraries and service agencies. They also wanted to know how to find partners outside of the library environment.

These conversations are not unique to MCLS. Consortia directors from around the country tell similar stories. The work that needed to be done in the early days, which was the primary value for membership in the consortium, is no longer sufficient. Necessary, yes, but more value needs to be added. Like us, other consortia are being asked to move in new directions and take on projects that haven’t been traditional consortium functions.

I’m not sure where this will all lead. It is clear that discounts on products remain very important to our members, and we’ll continue to work hard on delivering good value. But our members are telling us that they need more from their consortium. They want us to help them learn the skills to build long-lasting, strong relationships with a variety of community organizations. They also want to develop a deeper relationship with us and with other libraries. One librarian recently told me that it helps her just to know that others are facing the same difficulties that she is.

It’s a big challenge for us to manage the new demands alongside the services we’ve long provided. Our business model is built around our core services and moving in new directions is scary. It’s also exhilarating. And not optional. Organizational change is not only necessary, it’s mandatory. Facing our future, we know that libraries want a forward-looking consortium to help them work together so that we can all help each other move further. We’ll do our best to make that happen.