What Your ILL Technician Wants You to Know

I don’t get sentimental about libraries very often, but I’m downright gushy when it comes to interlibrary loans. They embody so much of the best that libraries are and can be – the free exchange of information, without expecting anything in return. If your local library doesn’t have the book or article you’re looking for, you can just… ask other libraries all over the world to send you theirs. How great is that?

I’ve been overseeing ILL at my library for six years now, and it’s the best part of my day. I love the detective aspect of it – the hunt for where the item my patron wants is, and how I can get it to them as quickly and cheaply as possible. And I love the rush when I get something really obscure into a patron’s hands and it turns out to be just what they wanted.

My only frustration with ILL as a service is that it’s not very well known, even among faculty. This article touches on some of the reasons for that, and starts to brainstorm how to fix it, but whatever the reason, I’ll take any opportunity I can get to proselytize about it. Now, while in library school, is a great time to acquaint yourself with ILL, because not only can you use it to benefit yourself now as a student, you can also use this time to get comfortable with the process so you can help future patrons use it too.

ExLibris defines ILL as “a request by a patron in one institution fulfilled by another institution. The fulfillment of the request is invisible to the patron: the patron requests and returns the item to the patron’s local institution…The lending library usually sets the due date and overdue fees of the material borrowed. The borrowing library and the lending library communicate in order to enable the requesting patron to receive material, and return it to the owning library after it was used.”

Whew! It’s not a complicated process, but it can get lengthy, and depends on a lot of factors outside any one person’s individual control – how often someone at another library checks for incoming requests, for example, or how reliable the mail service is. Therefore, my first tip is always:

  1. Give as much notice as possible. For print items, allowing two to three weeks from the time you make your request to the time you’ll have the item in your hands is pretty standard. If that’s not a workable timeframe for you, I still say submit the request anyway, but let the technician know that if you can’t get it by x-date, you don’t need it anymore, and also start exploring other, backup options to get the information you need. As a subset of this, my second recommendation is…
  2. Be flexible in regards to format (especially in COVID-19 times). You know what speeds this entire process up? E-copies! Not having to wait for mailrooms and mail pickup and mail deliveries and inclement weather and lost packages makes everything a lot quicker and more reliable. Obviously it’s easiest to share journal articles and e-book chapters via PDF, but if you really only need a chapter or two of a physical book, please consider letting your technician know that. A library might be more willing to photocopy some pages for you than they would loaning out an entire item (and, bonus, you’ll probably get it faster, too).
  3. Another time-saver is, give as much information as possible. Often, a student will give me nothing but an article title and author when submitting a request. While I am perfectly willing to spend time tracking down the specific journal title, ISSN, volume, edition, and page numbers for them, that time could probably be better spent, you know, actually submitting the request. So if you’ve got that information, share it! Be specific with what you really want and need, and what, if anything, you’d be willing to accept as a backup. (If you’d prefer the 2014 edition, but could make the 2012 edition work in a pinch, say so.)
  4. And, finally, I recommend shopping around. It may not be very well publicized, but most libraries, public and academic, offer at least some form of ILL service. If you have library cards at multiple libraries, or access through a university library but also use the local public library, compare and contrast the ILL offerings at your available institutions. The community college library where I work, for instance, doesn’t charge any fees to use ILL, unless the library that owns the item charges us a fee, in which case that fee is passed on to you, the patron. (I always try to find the item from a library that doesn’t charge, of course, but sometimes needs must.) Our local public library, on the other hand, charges $2 per request, whether they end up finding your materials or not. If you’ve got the time, do a little digging before hitting that submit button.

I hope this perspective is helpful to those who are already pro users of ILL, and if anyone has been reticent about trying it, I hope this was the encouragement you need to give it a shot! We ILL technicians are generally a friendly bunch 😊 If you have any more questions, please ask in the comments or find me on Twitter @darthbookworm3.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

5 replies

  1. Love this! I regularly used ILL for print books for large research papers in undergrad, and have already used it twice this semester for journal articles. I was just thinking about how I was curious about it the behind the scenes of ILL, especially about how it’s been impacted by Covid. Great post!


  2. Thanks! I’ve been requesting and supplying journal articles from home this year, which is not a skill I’d ever anticipated needing to develop, but students are getting their articles, so all’s well that ends well!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s