Before being named CEO of LYRASIS, Robert Miller was the General Manager of Digital Libraries at the Internet Archive, where he oversaw the scanning of millions of books in both the United States and in a host of other countries. It is my opinion that librarianship was a contagious disease that infected him. He simply fell in love with the mission of libraries, so it was no surprise when I learned that Robert had been tapped to lead LYRASIS in June 2015.

Now that he has had some time to settle in, I interviewed Robert last week to learn more about his vision and the business model he is using to support it. I am continually fascinated by entrepreneurial approaches applied to non-profit and cultural organizations, so it was a special pleasure to learn more the methods and approaches Robert is bringing to LYRASIS.

The Leaders Circle

I asked Robert to focus on the Leaders Circle, an initiative I heard about late in 2016. It sounded as if LYRASIS was experimenting with a new business model to fuel the organizations. Robert explained that when he was appointed as CEO, he knew that he needed to know more about his members’ aspirations and challenges. In the past year, he traveled 21,000 miles to 13 cities, and held 800 hours of conversations with 200 member organizations. He heard about scores of great ideas for collaboration and innovation, but he also saw great variation in members’ capacity for securing funding and applying human resources to new ideas. He began to imagine a role for LYRASIS in creating a Catalyst Fund that could be applied to give life to good ideas.

Robert made an early decision as CEO to sell the building that LYRASIS occupied in Atlanta. With a change in mission, there was no longer a need for network facilities, so the headquarters building was sold. Instead of giving every member a small reduction in membership fees with the proceeds, Robert and the LYRASIS board established the Catalyst Fund to support innovative thinking within the membership, which includes libraries, archives, and museums. The unusual feature of the initiative is that all members are encouraged to submit good ideas, even if the member organization does not have the staff to pursue the idea. An internal team, including a project manager, within LYRASIS will work on the idea, test its feasibility, understand its cost, and establish the next steps toward securing long-term funding for the result, should it prove to be a sustainable idea. In certain respects, the Catalyst Fund becomes a kind of incubator for ideas to see if they are sufficiently developed to submit to a foundation for full funding.

The Catalyst Fund is governed by the Leaders Circle. LYRASIS members may opt for Leaders Circle membership by paying $2,500 in dues, and this tier of membership allows the member organization to have a voice in selecting the projects that will receive Catalyst funding, and it also gives them access to everything that is learned about the innovative projects that are undertaken. There is even a method for smaller institutions to join for less or apply for a scholarship membership.

At an annual summit meeting in October, ideas that have received Catalyst funding are reviewed in front of the Leaders Circle and the group selects the “winning” ideas that will be further developed.

Distinctive Features of the Business Model

Robert described this business model as a new spin on an old idea. He sees it as a practical way for his members to work together with shared resources to build and sustain programs. He thinks foundations are likely to be interested in it because ideas will be vetted and tested before they are presented for foundation funding. The other great advantage is that for a low cost of entry, all of the members can participate in thought leadership, giving the organizations new opportunities to tackle big problems in collaboration with other library, archival, and museum organizations. All of the organizations, whether large or small, have a better chance of staying relevant by offering contemporary or even cutting-edge services.

Another important feature of the business model is that staff within the Leaders Circle organizations have opportunities to lend their expertise on project teams, creating staff development experiences that go beyond those that can be offered by a single organization. Instead of simply attending conferences and hearing about what others are doing, staff of libraries, archives, and museums can work together to figure out how to implement good ideas.

Looking to the Future

  • Robert is mindful that 2016 was the 75th anniversary of LYRASIS (considering the history of the partners in the merged organization). He has great hopes that with initiatives such as the Leaders Circle and the Catalyst Fund, LYRASIS members will position their organizations for the next 75 years. He sees great power in the combination of libraries, archives and museums and believes they have a lot of knowledge to share with one another and with the broader cultural community.
  • It is premature to assess the Leaders Circle and the ideas that will be proffered, as it has just been announced. The criteria for making a judgement include:
    •  Does the proposal serve a broader community outside of the single institution requesting funding?
    • Is the institution collaborating with others in the proposal?
    • Does this solution solve a well-defined problem?

The results of the program depend upon the innovative ideas that members put forward.

A Personal Note

The LYRASIS experiment is really interesting to me because I have written about and advocated for greater collaboration among libraries, archives, and museums throughout my career. Especially at a time when all of these organizations are exploring digitization as a way to expand access to the collections that have been developed by large and small, national and local, print and artefactual organizations, there are so many compelling reasons to collaborate instead of compete. The LYRASIS experiment is brand new, so the organization may have to modify some of the existing plans, but this is an experiment well worth watching.