Libraries will borrow from another library for you

ILL book

ILL book

Not all information is available for free on the Internet. Sometimes you simply need a book or journal article. So you go to the library. What if your library doesn’t have it? Simple. It has an office to borrow what you need from another library. It’s called interlibrary loan, or ILL.

Yes, libraries borrow books from each other. They’ve been doing that for generations. Any library with more than a dozen or so employees probably has at least one person devoted to borrowing materials from another library and someone else devoted to lending materials to another library. Larger libraries typically send more books to other libraries than they borrow. Smaller libraries typically borrow more books than they lend.

Until teleportation devices move from the realm of science fiction to reality, when you fill out a request for ILL services, someone has to go to the stacks, physically take the book off the shelf, and send it to the other library. Most libraries now belong to some kind of library network, with some kind of currier service that operates among the members. They prefer to conduct interlibrary loan services within the network. If that’s not possible, then they use the mail or the various commercial delivery services like UPS.

If transporting books from one library to another has to be done the old fashioned way, at least it’s not necessary for you to go to the library in order to start the process. Log on to your library from home and check their catalog. If it does not own what you want, you can find an ILL form on the library’s site and fill it out. Of course, you must have a library card with that library. When the book comes in, you’ll probably get an email, and you can go to the library to check it out.

I have consistently written “book.” Libraries have more than books, of course. You might want a video or audio recording, for example. Not all libraries will send these materials out on ILL, however. In fact, they will not even let all of their books out of the library. Any library will have a non-circulating collection of reference books. Academic libraries, at least, will have a reserve collection, and patrons can typically use it only in the building or take it out for only a few hours. Typically, the library’s collection of bound magazines and journals don’t circulate, either.
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Document delivery services

ILL office

ILL office

I have consistently written “book.” Libraries have more than books, of course. You might want a video or audio recording, for example. You can get them, but it might be more difficult. Not all libraries will send these materials out on ILL, however.

In fact, they will not even let all of their books out of the library. Any library will have a non-circulating collection of reference books. Academic libraries, at least, will have a reserve collection, and patrons can typically use it only in the building or take it out for only a few hours. Typically, the library’s collection of bound magazines and journals don’t circulate, either.

In the old days, you would have been out of luck if you wanted any of these materials. Once dependable copy machines became common in libraries, document delivery services were born. If you specified a limited number of pages, ILL lending staff would find the book or journal, photocopy the pages you wanted, and send them to your library. You didn’t borrow the copy. It was yours to keep. Nowadays, ILL lending staff scans those pages and sends along a PDF. ILL borrowing staff at your library will send it to you as an email attachment.

Technology exists to send sound files, video files, and high-quality photographs and art reproductions. Copyright law probably does not. You might be able to obtain these kinds of information if the lending library owns the rights. It might be worth asking about, but don’t bet the ranch on it.

The great thing about any kind of document delivery service is that the library often absorbs the cost. That is, some libraries may ask you to pay for a photocopy or PDF file, but most will not. You haven’t gotten your information free on the Internet, but your only cost is printing out a PDF. Not bad. That’s one reason why you can’t get things on ILL that your library owns unless it’s checked out for a long time and you need it right away–something much likelier at an academic library.

Still, if you need a document, as opposed to a book, and your library owns the (non-circulating) book or journal, you can always go there and photocopy it yourself. Or, if a library database makes the full text available online, you can access it from home and email it to yourself. The library pays an arm and a leg for the database, which is why you won’t get to it from a search engine. But it’s free to you. Aren’t you glad you have the library card that let’s you use it?

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Photo credits:
ILL book: Some rights reserved by Morris County Library (NJ)
ILL office: Some rights reserved by born1945


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