Innovative Interfaces Inc. on May 30 acquired VTLS, developer of the Virtua integrated library system (ILS), VITAL digital asset management system, Chamo Discovery layer, MozGo mobile application, and other library technology solutions. Following Innovative’s acquisition of Polaris on April 1, the move further consolidates the library automation marketplace while expanding Innovative’s global presence and solidifying the company’s position as one of the largest library technology providers in the world. The combined companies will be led by Innovative CEO Kim Massana, with VTLS President and CEO Dr. Vinod Chachra serving in an interim role as VP of global expansion for six months. Financial terms of the sale were not disclosed.
VTLS products are used by more than 2,100 libraries, roughly 70 percent of which are located in 42 countries outside the United States. One key factor that made VTLS an attractive acquisition target for Innovative was the way in which the international territories served by each company complemented one another, according to representatives from both companies.
“Our customer base is such that where we have a strong presence, they don’t. Where they have a strong presence, we don’t,” Chachra told LJ. For example, there were fourteen countries, including Malaysia, Russia, Poland, Switzerland, and India, where Innovative did not previously have customers, Chahchra said. “It helps to get good geographic coverage through a combined effort like this.”
Innovative plans to continue operating VTLS’s former headquarters in Blacksburg, VA, as well as its offices in Barcelona, Spain and Selangor, Malaysia. These will become Innovative centers for operations, combining with Polaris’s former headquarters in Syracuse, NY, Innovative’s headquarters in Emeryville, CA., its office in Dublin, Ireland, and its development and support center in Noida, India to give the company a truly international infrastructure that will support a customer base of over 2,400 library systems, totaling 9,500 libraries in 66 countries.
“Kim [Massana] has been clear that international growth is a big part of our plans,” Gene Shimshock, senior vice president of global marketing for Innovative, told LJ. “This is a big leap in that direction.”
Shimshock added that Innovative will continue to develop, support, and sell VTLS products. These products will be rebranded with a VTLS prefix—such as VTLS-Virtua, VTLS-VITAL, and VTLS-Chamo Discovery—to signify their position within Innovative’s broader portfolio. Retaining the newly acquired company’s offices and staff will help Innovative maintain relationships with existing customers.
“The people that [VTLS customers] have come to know on the other end of the phone are still here,” Shimshock said. “We’ve really made a point of maintaining the support and sales organizations. It’s been a big part of what we’re trying to do.”
Innovative has made similar promises regarding Polaris, and for now, the company appears to be committed to supporting four separate platforms—its own Millennium ILS and Sierra library services platform, as well as the Polaris ILS and now VTLS-Virtua. Many customers of the acquired companies have expressed concern about the future of their platform. Consolidation, staff reduction, and elimination of redundancies are typical during corporate mergers, and long-term development support for two new automation platforms, in addition to other solutions offered by these companies, would seem to preclude much of that. And for libraries, uncertainty regarding the future of their technology solutions can translate into uncertainty about ongoing projects.
For example, the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) in Missouri has worked closely with VTLS’s Drupal design and consulting division—Vorpal Solutions—to develop the Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri Kansas Conflict 1854-1865 website. The Drupal-based site interfaces with KCPL’s VTLS-VITAL digital asset management system, enabling site visitors to discover and interact with thousands of documents and artifacts from 25 institutions in a variety of unique ways, including a “Relationship Viewer.” Leveraging features of the Resource Description and Access (RDA) standards used to catalog documents in the repository, the Relationship Viewer is a visual browser tool allows users to explore the collection by affiliation. Clicking on a person’s name, for example, will bring up a visual interface showing places they lived, people they mentioned in letters, regiments in which they served, etc. Users can browse from affiliation to affiliation, which will continue to open up more visual browsing options, or click on the links in between to view the digitized items that document these affiliations.
It’s a cutting-edge site. Last month it won the 2014 Award for Excellence in Public History from the Society of Civil War Historians. KCPL has been in negotiations with VTLS about a similar site for their special collections, and has been planning to migrate all of their repository data from CONTENTdm into VITAL.
Although he described himself as “cautiously optimistic” about the merger, David LaCrone, digital branch manager for the Kansas City Public Library (MO), added that “this comes at an awkward time for us, because we were putting all of our eggs in that basket… So much of what we do with them, I don’t want to say it’s not their core business, but it’s a little special. It’s coordinating, it’s collaborating, it’s talking and working together. We have access to the developers. I wonder if that kind of service is something that might suffer, simply as they grow a lot bigger and have more products to support.”
Emily Guthrie, chair of the North American VTLS User Group (VUG) Steering Committee and NEH Librarian, Printed Book and Periodical Collection for Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, said that this was a concern for her as well.
“We’re fairly small,” she said. “We’re open to the public, but we’re not a public library, so our needs with VTLS have been simple over the years. But when we have needed their help during transitions to different software, their response time has always been really good. We’ve come to really appreciate their customer service so much… My greatest concern with that transition is that that might change.”
The day following Innovative’s announcement, Guthrie had not yet heard any concerns raised by other VUG members. But, she said she trusted that Chachra—who has led VTLS since it originated as an automation project for the Virginia Tech Library System in 1974, and has owned the company since incorporating it as a subsidiary of Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties in 1985—had not taken the sale lightly.
“We have a lot of faith in Vinod Chachra,” said Guthrie. “I’m sure he’s made a very careful decision, and if there’s anything that is reassuring about this, it’s that I don’t think he would want to drop his customers off in a new place without making sure that they were well taken care of.”
Users of core solutions such as VTLS-Virtua, VTLS-VITAL, and VTLS-Chamo Discovery can be confident that support for these products will almost certainly continue through the end of the decade, based on existing maintenance contracts alone. Notably, Hong Kong Public Libraries, a 67-branch system with an annual circulation of 59 million items, still has more than eight years left on its maintenance contract for Virtua and Chamo. And, in a recent interview with LJ following the Polaris acquisition, Massana emphasized that he views forced migrations as a bad strategy that has been proven to backfire in the library field.
Instead, Innovative’s ultimate goal is to develop a next-generation cloud-based system and suite of tools that will work with Sierra, Polaris, or Virtua on the back end. Many of those tools will be drawn from current solutions or development projects at each company, potentially incorporating Polaris’s new tablet-based staff client LEAP, Innovative’s consortial resource sharing and collection development tool INN-Reach, and VTLS-VITAL for digital asset management, for example.
“In that kind of environment, we can actually take best of breed systems and bring them together into a solution that would be truly excellent, cherry picking the best pieces from all of the software areas, and creating a cloud-based solution that takes advantage of that,” said Chachra.
Innovative is currently evaluating its growing portfolio of solutions, and some will doubtless receive more development support than others as plans for the new cloud-based platform begin to take shape.
“Our product people are getting together and figuring out what our roadmap will be,” Shimshock said. “But right now, we know we are committing to all of the platforms.”