What’s Mine is Yours: A Love Letter to Interlibrary Loan

When I started working in interlibrary loan two years ago, my experience with the system was limited to getting one book on vintage hairstyles through my public library and frantically requesting articles for impending papers during my undergraduate degree. As part of the application for the position, I had to write an essay on why ILL is important in the public library. I’m too afraid to dig it up to quote it for you all, but I’m almost positive it was something along the lines of, “Uh… I dunno, access probably?” I’m not entirely sure how I got hired considering how little I actually knew about the complex, wonderful, improbable, wacky system that is interlibrary loan. But it probably had something to do with innate charm, self-confidence, and poise.

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This is what innate charm, self-confidence, and poise look like, right?

In the intervening time, however, I have come to love and respect the process of interlibrary loan, and if you’ve talked to me about libraries for more than five minutes chances are you’ve heard all about it. My favorite thing to do is brag about how many lending strings I have memorized – as you might know, each library is assigned a three-letter code to assist with automation. Ours is CQU, and I’ve been known to shout a library’s lending string upon seeing an advertisement for its college in the airport or to identify people this way at interlibrary loan conferences. I also have a good memory for items I process, which made me humbly decide to crown myself the Ollivander of ILL (“I remember every ILL I’ve ever processed, Mr. Potter…”). As you can imagine, these qualities make me super fun to be around.

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“The ILL chooses the borrower. That much has always been clear to those of us who have studied interlibrary loan lore.” – Ollivander if he were a librarian, probably. (Photo in the Public Domain courtesy of Pixabay.)

In all seriousness, however, ILL is a vital and underappreciated aspect of library services. In 2015, I was able to go to a local interlibrary loan conference where EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka was the keynote speaker. This meant almost nothing to me at the time but I have gone on to become EveryLibrary’s biggest fangirl, mainly because what Chrastka had to say about ILL was so compelling. He made the argument that interlibrary loan is an incredibly subversive and unlikely system – it operates across state (and sometimes national) lines, it is reciprocal in nature (“I won’t charge you if you don’t charge me,”), and relatively few people actually know that it exists. It can benefit large and small libraries alike, it opens up the world of information to our patrons, and it’s so complex that it seems like it shouldn’t really work but still does.

But, as has been discussed by many, Chrastka also pointed out the ways in which ILL is falling behind and failing patrons. We may soon be able to have a pizza delivered by drone to our front door in minutes. In this sort of environment, people won’t be willing to wait the three-to-six weeks I warn my patrons they might have to endure to get their ILL. They’ll want it instantaneously, and they’ll want it digitally – which is also nearly impossible in the current state of ILL. Systems like Occam’s Reader are trying to make ebooks more ILL-friendly, but the work is slow going and definitely not widespread.

So my question for you all is this – how can we (as students, as future professionals, as library advocates) make interlibrary loan better? Even here, on HLS, the visibility and support for ILL is nearly non-existent – most of the articles that mention it regard it in a negative light (it’s inefficient for patrons or an unwieldy system.) But as Jessica pointed out in a recent article, ILL is often the only way some collections come to light. It’s often the only way patrons in remote or small library districts get access to a wider collection of materials. And how else would my patrons get access to all the obscure horror movies, 21-cases of the Bible on CD audio book, and sheet music that their hearts desire?

ILL is important, and after two years of carting books from the mail to my office to the branches to the patron and back through the other direction, I finally have better strategies to articulate it. So do you know the ins and outs of the ILL system at your library? In your job, how can you better represent and advocate for ILL to your patrons? If we can start answering some of these questions, maybe we can start to make ILL better – for our patrons and for the principles we hold as information professionals.

8 replies

  1. What a great homage to ILL!
    I’ve worked in almost every area of the library over the years, starting with library shelver, and after earning my degree in circulation; children’s services; reference; and cataloging, but I can tell you nothing has been as rewarding (and challenging) as working in ILL. I absolutely love being able to help our own community get books from other libraries around the world, and to connect outside libraries (around the world — it boggles the mind that an institution as prestigious as, say, Oxford University in England wants something we own!) with our materials.
    Thanks for the good words!

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  2. Also an ILL Specialist and I’m 100% with you! We need to advocate for more protections under copyright law, publishers have got us cornered. We need to bring programs like Occam’s Reader out of the dark, and it needs to function for all kinds of digital media. We need to advocate for ourselves too, so that our institutions value our work and are willing to pay for it! Long Live LVIS! 🙂

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  3. I work in ILL at UMC. Our discovery system (WorldCat) has proven a good way to introduce ILL, because a lot of times patrons think we own a book, when really, we (only) have access to it. Word has also, somewhat erroneously, spread around campus that you can request textbooks through ILL, which has, I think, really helped visibility.

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  4. Still love this post! I work in ILL, so I’m constantly advocating for ILL to our patrons! I have one shift a week at the public Circ/Info desk, and I always mention it when a patron is looking for an item. If it’s not an easy answer, I refer them to the reference desk, saying, “A librarian at that desk can help you locate that item. If we don’t have it here, they can request it through ILL for you!” And when someone signs up for a library card, I remind them that they also have access to so many materials through ILL. I’m always very surprised that most people don’t know that this service exists! Or they think that it’s just for super special requests. I always encourage it! I think most libraries need to do a better job of informing patrons of this valuable service!

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