How to make interlibrary loan really work for you

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ILL stands for Interlibrary Loan, and it’s just as magical as it sounds. When a library doesn’t actually have an item you want, it can request it from another library, essentially by borrowing the book for you from another institution. This process is free (mainly; some libraries charge shipping or a small fee if you are a heavy user) and opens the world to you. Whether you need a manual or just an ultra-rare copy of Women of the Wasteland Wolf Warrior, ILL is where you need to be.

Get to know the ILL landscape

Your ILL options will vary greatly from region to region. Borrowing ILLs between consortia, co-ops or libraries that are members of the system is usually very quick and easy, so if you have one, good for you. For example, if you live in Boston, you can be part of the Metro Boston Library Network. This network encompasses several impressive branches, including the Boston Public Library. If this is your case, the ILL will probably never be a problem for you, as Boston will almost always send whatever you ask for to your library. As with Beantown Libraries, the institution that owns the book you want can even share a catalog and online interface with your personal library, making the whole process almost seamless.

Some places also have systems where you can easily borrow a book from anywhere in the state. Massachusetts is like that, like it is Texas. This is usually a bit more complicated than a network loan because the libraries involved don’t share a catalog, but people do it every day. I just applied for an ILL in the Massachusetts State ILL system, the Commonwealth Catalog. So the.

In addition to the local ILL, there is the OCLC Global System, which is searchable via WorldCat. There are literally libraries all over the world in this system. Almost all libraries, public and academic, in the United States are listed. Libraries as far apart as the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts and the London Borough of Brent appear there.

A little more about WorldCat

What is important to note about WorldCat is that many of its profiles are not associated with loanable items. There are of course books in these locations, but in cases where there appear to be no books to borrow, the library is not actively participating in the WorldCat system. This is when you should ask your librarian – very kindly – to make a phone call.

This assumes you’ve been to the library’s website before and accessed their local catalog, found the item you want there, and are able to communicate that information to your librarian. Public librarians usually don’t have time to find unlisted ILLs for you – this is an incredibly laborious process, often aided by prior knowledge of the article via a bibliography or citation. University librarians may have more leeway to help you explore if you are not already sure of the title and location of the item you need.

Once you’ve found the McGuffin, even if it’s not listed in Worldcat, your librarian may be able to perform this rarest and most difficult library expert maneuver – the point-to-point query. . This is basically a personal request that involves making temporary records, swearing up and down that the item will be returned, and possibly paying the shipping cost. Point-to-point requests often fail, are difficult to manage en masse, and hardly ever succeed when an ocean is involved, so librarians try to avoid them. Having said that, refusing to try leads to failure every time, so go for it.

You can get all kinds of things with the ILL

Books, movies, music and all, it’s usually available through your ILL platform. Some libraries still lend VHS through WorldCat. Amish vampires in space is still there somewhere. Libraries that hold these items are very happy to lend them – ILL circulation statistics are important and count towards library budgets. Most books don’t come out much after their initial popularity wears off, so it’s a real treat when a library receives a request for something that’s just sitting on a shelf collecting dust.

Know your librarian

You might think you know how to place an ILL order. You don’t. Not like your librarian does. Interlibrary loan is a vast network of alliances, compromises, and interdependent associations, coupled with a deep understanding of the many quirks of metadata management. The more local an ILL command, the more likely you are to process it yourself.

Within a system or consortium, don’t bother asking for help. In one state, consider trying it yourself if your area is designed for it, but don’t feel bad if you need to seek help. Don’t even try with WorldCat. If you place an order for a rare VHS in WorldCat, you definitely don’t get it – it’s precious and old and no one is lending it to anyone. But your librarian might be able to find something – if not the item itself, then maybe a copy of it, if applicable. You’ll only know if you tell them about ILL instead of trying to sort it out yourself.

Some things just aren’t there

There’s no Acknowledgments 2. There just isn’t. Stop looking for it. Embrace the misery of its non-existence. Move on with your life. The ILL cannot help you.

In some situations, media that is not available on ILL may appear on Archive.org or other online streaming platform. In other cases, you are chasing a dream. Believe it or not, libraries don’t store (or catalog) everything that has ever been published. After a certain point, you will have to look elsewhere for your copy of Thanksgiving Turkey Forgiveness, Teddy Bear Death, and Guantanamo Sovereign Exception.

Good things sometimes happen to those who wait

ILL articles endure a long and dangerous journey from their home to your library. Typically, libraries won’t send material overseas, but it’s easy to accidentally order something from, say, France. If this type of request is successful in one way or another, you envision a waiting period of several months for an item that AbeBooks could have got you in a matter of days. (Again, ask your librarian for help when using WorldCat. I can’t stress this enough.) But even though it’s only from Des Moines, you could wait weeks for this article. Libraries will not pay for priority shipping. Any emphasis on the urgent nature of your request will not move the laws of physics or the Postal Service an inch. If you need it by tomorrow, you better cut your losses and buy it.

Additionally, your first request may be refused if the library is too far away or the item is fragile. As long as you have the time, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to give up. There may be other editions in other registers or locations that your librarian can search for you. However, all of this work could take weeks or more. Settle in with another item on your TBR list.


Want to learn more about library loans and supplies? Discover the Ode at Rachel Wagner’s Library.


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