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August 16, 2010

Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is a long-standing library practice that might be called a “standard special service.”

It’s standard because nearly every library offers it, and it’s special because ILLs (i) account for a small fraction of library use and (ii) represent a remarkable cooperative relationship among a wide variety of institutions.

Almost 99% of our circulation comes from our own collection. And this after our ILLs have doubled recently as we’ve supported 18 local book clubs.

(Book club readers note: I have dictatorially changed our procedure again. What seemed like a good service idea turned out to be a lot of wasted effort for us and other libraries.

(Now, book clubs will no longer be served as groups, but instead members may make requests when they desire, and each will be served individually.)

Sharing through Interlibrary Loan makes sense, allowing any library, even the largest, to be larger than it is. Libraries have created efficient systems for sharing, enhanced by electronic networks and effective transportation (Colorado’s library courier system).

We had some years in which we filled every ILL request, but those golden days are gone. There are several reasons.

For one, times are hard for many libraries (public, school, university, medical, legal, corporate, and other special libraries).

Service provided outside their membership is harder to justify, even when a cooperative venture such as ILL is paid back in service to their own. ILL is a more expensive service, although modern refinements have made it less so.

When the money’s not there, something gets cut. If you could cut a costly service and still provide 99% of the service you had, wouldn’t you? I think we’re seeing this now.

Another reason for unfilled requests can be found in the changing marketplace. The Internet provides an enormous and accessible market for all kinds of things, many of them published in non-traditional ways.

Tools are available for anyone to publish and market print, audio, and video, bypassing the traditional publishing industry. People have done so in enormous quantity. Self-published works abound on Amazon. A layer of filtering has been removed between authors and readers.

People can argue whether this is good or bad, but it means we do more filtering now in judging requests for materials. For years, we’ve encouraged our members to tell us what they want. Then, we would decide how to get the stuff: buy it or borrow it.

The question of “buy or borrow” has become “buy, borrow, or say no.”

We don’t ignore esoterica, but we won’t flood the shelves, either. The challenge is not only with titles like “Princess Di’s Top-Secret Area 51 Alien Diet.”

What about the 40-disc DVD collection of an old TV show? Out-of-print material that is pricey even in marginal condition? Do we buy just the hardcover or also the ebook, audio CD, MP3 CD and the downloadable audio of the same title? There is a host of issues.

Already, more library members than we’d like find their inquiries unsatisfied through the library. Not many, but more than in the past.

These are not new issues in collection development, but there are new twists. Consider copyright.

Book clubs typically bought copies of the books they read. Only recently have interlibrary loan rules permitted borrowing multiple copies.

How many sales did authors lose last year by us borrowing copies from other libraries? But traditional copyright is clear on the right to do this with copies one has bought.

For years, libraries, authors, and publishers have coexisted nicely under this law. Digital copyright, however, is radically different, with good and not-so-good reason.

To this we shall return, because Digital Rights Management looms large in the future of libraries.


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