June 25, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Sixty-eight Eastern Oregon libraries will soon be just a keystroke apart.

The Eastern Oregon University-based Pioneer Library System has received the final piece of funding needed for a merger with 48 other libraries in the region.

A $227,953 grant from the Ford Family Foundation gives the Pioneer Library System the $1,027,953 total it needs for the merger.

Im relieved and elated, said EOU Library Director Patricia Cutright, one of the leaders of the merger project.

The Pioneer Library System is an online network that allows people to see, via computer, what titles are available at member libraries. Patrons can borrow from member libraries at no charge.

The 20 libraries that are now part of the Pioneer system are in Union, Baker and Grant counties. The total consists of school, community college, university and public libraries.

The grant from the Ford Family Foundation will help add 48 libraries in Umatilla, Sherman, Gilliam, Malheur, Morrow, Wallowa and Harney counties

to the system.

The new network has received a $750,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust and a $50,000 grant from the Collins Foundation. The Meyer grant was received in December and the Collins grant in February.

Cutright said all three grantors were helpful and exceptionally easy to work with.

I cant say enough good things about Oregons philanthropic organizations, Cutright said.

Work on creation of the merged library system will begin immediately. Three people will be hired for the project, all to be based at Eastern. Two of the positions are temporary and one is permanent.

Cutright said the libraries in Malheur and Harney counties may be linked by Sept. 1. The libraries in Umatilla, Sherman, Gilliam, Morrow and Wallowa counties should be linked by Jan. 1.

Getting representatives of the 68 libraries to work together has been a major undertaking.

It has been a huge collaborative effort, Cutright said. It is heartening to see how everyone has worked together so well and so closely.

People who had made a major difference in helping to write the successful grant applications include Terry Edvalson of La Grande, former director of the Easterns Regional Services Institute.

The network does not have a name but one will be selected by the end of the month, Cutright said.

Two of the most significant planned improvements the

new system will provide are direct checkout and universal borrowing.

With direct checkout, patrons can check out books from any of the 68 libraries at any time. All one will need is a computer linked to the Internet.

With a universal borrowers card, patrons of all libraries can walk into any one and check out a book. March is the target date for establishment of universal borrowers card program.