Thursday, April 28, 2011

Demystifying ILL

As an undergrad, I LOVED interlibrary loan. I was doing one of those crazy esoteric senior projects - examining the historical development of agriculture technology and the bifurcation of nature and society (say that 10 times fast). While we had an awesome library, it didn't have most of what I needed to write this paper. Interlibrary loan saved the day. Putting in a request one day and having it show up in either my email inbox or campus mailbox was amazing. If I knew then that I would be working in an interlibrary loan office a few years later, I would have been much more appreciative.

I now realize that interlibrary loan is a lot of work. And I don't think that library users are aware of this. I know I didn't before I worked in a library. So I posted this thought on twitter:

I hope patrons realize how much work goes into getting their articles through ILL...

..and I got this response:

@JenniferMReads I'm a librarian & don't know exactly what goes into getting an article via ILL! Blog post idea??!!

Well, JenniferMReads, here it is. I lift the veil of Inter-Library Loan:

First, a note. My responsibility right now is just to process incoming lending requests, providing patrons from other libraries with materials from our collection. Also, we're a relatively large medical academic library, so we get a lot of lending requests. That said, here is a *brief* description of how this process goes down:

- Request comes in through one of three avenues: illiad, docline or document delivery

- I process the request, locating where it might be in the library (physical location or electronic database) and what format the requesting library would like it in (physical book/journal or tiff or pdf)

- Locate the item, pulling it from the stacks or navigating databases and publishers websites

- Scan the item and save it in the preferred format or download the article

- Send the item: package and address the book or journal or make sure that the proper electronic format gets sent through the appropriate electronic pathways (through Ariel or Odyssey software or save the pdf on a server and email the link to the library).

- Repeat again, and again. and again. and again.

The craziest part about ILL is that requests never. stop. coming. in. It's like running up a giant sand dune. Each step takes you closer to the top, but you are constantly sliding backwards. If you ever stop, you'll find yourself back at the bottom.

And these are just requests from other libraries, let alone placing a request for material from another library for our patrons.

While this post might sound "woe is me," I love working in inter-library loan. It provides many hands on learning opportunities. I am constantly thinking of the user, remembering what it was like to receive requested articles. I also remember what it was like to receive an article that was blurry, cut off, hard to read or had lots of black areas from poor scanning/copying that wasted toner when printed off. So I take care to ensure that my scans are readable and printable. I know patrons don't stop to think about the quality of their article - unless the quality is poor. So my goal is to make sure that patrons don't don't how awesome there scans and copies are.

I'm also getting some great experience navigating through databases and publisher websites. In the few weeks that I have worked in the ILL office, I have probably looked up more journal articles than in the entirety of my post-secondary academic career.

And of course I spend the time with some great individuals who create a pretty awesome work environment.

ILL is an essential part to the library system, creating additional avenues for patrons to access information they need. I hope this description helps clear up some of how those materials are brought in. And if you ever receive a journal article from a medical library in the Pacific Northwest, know that it was sent with a little bit of love!


  1. You guys have one of the fastest turnaround times on articles I've ever seen. Amazing!

  2. Thanks, Renjitsu - that is one of our goals!!

  3. I do love thinking of ILL as magic, after all that what it seems like. This is a nice informative post!

  4. I worked ILL through undergrad so this was a nice trip down memory lane. I'm in tech services now, but at a medical library so I know how things go. I do miss perusing articles in other fields though! Thanks for this.

  5. Super flattered that you took my tweet and ran with it.

    I guess I did know all the ILL steps but never had given thought to the fact that an institution could get so many requests that it becomes like shampoo: wash, rinse, repeat - heavy emphasis on repeat! And that it could be essentially one person's job - please tell me you do other things too while at work?!?

    So from a student who relied on ILL for her MLIS, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to every single one of you that pulled, scanned, and emailed me articles. Often I received them within a day of my request - which now has me totally awed! You folks rock!

  6. Glad that you enjoyed it, Carolyn!

    Mackenzie - I'm curious if you are using any skills/lessons learned/experience from your days in ILL in your current job in tech services?

    JenniferMReads - thank YOU for the inspiration! And yes, there are about four of us who work in the office (though not all at the same time), with an awesome supervisor who is our fearless leader!!

  7. Hi Turner

    What a great post! I work part-time in ILL at my public library and have often wondered if anyone (patrons or co-workers) really knows what goes into an ILL request. I work on the opposite end, processing requests from our patrons who want something from another library. I recently made a flow chart of the number of steps it takes to process one ILL and was amazed. And they never stop coming! I know some public libraries have begun charging for ILL requests and it has insighted some debate. I have some mixed feelings about it. Thanks again for the post!

  8. That's funny, because the library I work at is talking about creating free ILL requests for our patrons - we currently charge them.

    Glad that you enjoyed the post, Carson!