2 miles or 10,000 miles—ILL makes us one library

40th-ill-anniversary

Recently, the interlibrary loan (ILL) staff at the Loyola Notre Dame Library (LOY) tracked the locations around the world from which they borrow and lend library materials. The exercise was prompted by a student who, after being shown ILL by staff members Kate Strain and Zach Gahs-Buccheri, asked, “What’s the farthest library that you’ve gotten an item from?”

Turns out the answer was the Dalton McCaughey Library at the University of Melbourne in Australia, which is 10,038 miles from LOY in Baltimore, Maryland, US.

What a great example of how ILL makes us one big library with endless shelves. No library can possibly have on hand every item it needs. For that we rely on the resource sharing communities we build. In fact, some libraries keep things in their collections to circulate primarily via ILL rather than locally. That’s the commitment they have to sharing resources.

A willingness to share your collection

When I started my first job in interlibrary loan at Woodbury University (OMB) in Burbank, California, I was excited to share our collection. As a lender of AV materials, we naturally got many requests for our extensive film collection. And as a library with a large architecture collection, supporting undergraduate and graduate programs, we received requests for those items regularly as well. But what I did not expect was to see the development of a small but consistent list of items that were super popular via interlibrary loan. These items would be happily loaned to libraries all over the country—public libraries, academic libraries, prison libraries, small rural libraries. They would come back, be reshelved in our stacks, and then within a couple of weeks, there would be brand new ILL requests for them.

What I found odd about this situation is that these were all titles that hardly ever circulated locally among our university community. In fact, they would have otherwise been considered less important to retain in our physical collection. Space is at a premium in the evolving library. Deselecting titles allows libraries space to develop other programs—group study areas, learning commons, and other offerings to draw more patrons into our libraries. But when we looked at overall circulation statistics for these popular ILL lending items, we saw that they obviously held value.

A willingness to reach beyond your community

Once I came to OCLC and started working on our interlibrary loan products, I wondered if my experience as an ILL librarian was unique. Did other libraries also get requests via ILL for titles in their own collections that they might otherwise have weeded due to local lack of interest? Did they decide to keep them in their collection for this one purpose, too? I reached out to our active member community and asked this question. Very quickly, I heard back from Robyn Clark-Bridges from Mount Mercy University (UIW) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with a resounding yes!

Robyn told me about how her library had embarked upon a major reorganization of their physical collection with the goal of reducing the collection by about 30%. She immediately had three titles come to mind that fit my description—super popular with other libraries via ILL but not with local patrons. When it came time to refine their collection, they worked ILL usage into their decision-making and decided to keep these popular-for-ILL titles in their library. There was even one title that a faculty member insisted they withdraw from their collection because he felt was not representative of his department’s academic goals. However, the library decided to retain it because of its enormous popularity via interlibrary loan.

Why do we make these decisions? We make them because interlibrary loan really does let us all become one big library with nearly endless shelves. Just because my patrons didn’t want to check out The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing (See! I still remember the exact title!) doesn’t mean that other libraries in my resource sharing community do not need that item. And if my library really wants The Toxic Avenger from Robyn’s library, I can rest assured that she is keeping it in her collection so that my patrons can meet their information need!

Congratulations to the ILL community

Interlibrary loan has always held the most special place for me. As librarians, resource sharing allows us to reach out to the community beyond the one we serve in our local library. Sure, we can rally behind finding the hard-to-find item for a faculty member working on a book deadline or finding the perfect resource for a senior’s thesis project. But it is our connection to that larger ILL community that makes it all possible. Part of that connection is sharing our own resources—and meeting the information needs of a patron all the way across the country—or even across the world!

Over the last three years, LOY has borrowed from international libraries 46 times, representing 14 countries—from as close as Canada, to as far away as Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, and Lebanon. What a testament this is to the worldwide resource sharing community that we have built since 1979. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of OCLC Interlibrary Loan, we can see how this unique community allows us to virtually extend our shelves to libraries across town or across the world.