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Be Prepared

May 3, 2004

“Be prepared.” I received that advice long ago, even before joining the Boy Scouts. I heard the advice and logged it in my head, but it never quite reached my heart.

When you sit down to measure human passivity towards trouble, you’ll find me in the middle. I’m not completely blind to trouble. I think I can see really dark shadows when they loom. But I take note of many approaching clouds and ignore them. It’s a particular emotional, rather than intellectual, response to the world.

I thought of this matter last week at an Interlibrary Loan conference in Boulder, where I gave a talk. I had prepared my notes but I never got around to timing it. (Shadow ignored.)

It’s good to keep an eye on the clock, because it’s easy to lose time when you and your audience are transported by the beauty of your language and the wealth of startling insights.

I don’t wear a watch, a stubbornly illogical quirk in my circumstances, but there you go. I couldn’t see a clock from the podium, so I relied on the session’s timekeeper.

Halfway through my notes, I raised an eyebrow to the timekeeper in the front row. Five minutes, she gestured.

“Five minutes!” I said incredulously. The audience got one laugh, anyway.

I skipped a page full of startling insights and jumped to a discussion of what turns out to be an uncommon practice among libraries but which is daily practice for us.

The hot phrase for it in “collection development” circles is “Buy on Demand.” One reason it’s discussed is that it doesn’t formally happen much, especially in large libraries and especially academic libraries. In large organizations, bureaucracies happen. Layers of approval are required.

This barrier alone often creates more interlibrary loan requests than a library might really need to make. The front-line librarian helping a patron who needs something quickly knows there isn’t time to order a book through such a process. Out comes the ILL form.

You’re probably wondering: Do we buy things for which there is no demand? Yes and no.

I did make a distinction in my talk, preferring instead of “buy on demand” the phrase “collect on demand.” The word “buy” is obvious but matters more to a large organization with many purchasing rules. There are only two levels of bureaucracy in our library: the staff and me.

We look at every request as a collection development opportunity. We might buy your requested book but also look for complementary books on the subject and fill in the gap in our collection.

The startling news to some of the audience was that anyone on our staff (who feels comfortable doing it) can choose books to order. You may have witnessed this.

All you have to do is ask for a book. We decide how to get it. But if a staff member feels strongly that we should have it, she or he may simply add it to an order and start a list with the requestor’s name immediately.

Of course, we won’t be browbeaten into buying books, although we’ll always do our best to get what you need. Likewise, we might buy a book despite your protests that we should borrow it on interlibrary loan.

To be continued. I can see why my talk was long. There’s more interesting stuff to discuss. For example, I calculated how much shelf space interlibrary loans saved public libraries in 2002 …


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