13 June 2010

The Magic of Interlibrary Loan

There are a few of you out there (you know who you are) who buy books. Theoretically, if you go to a top-notch bookstore, you can get them to order virtually any book in publication and even pay a little extra to have it come in the mail. And you can keep it! Move over Netflix. As great as this system is, it has a couple of flaws. First, you have to pay for the books. If you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, this probably doesn't present a problem. In fact, to save time, they could just buy a bookstore chain and hire someone to keep up with their Goodreads list for them. Or, you might take the view of Desiderius Erasmus who said: "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." We book-lovers can identify with that, I think. However, I believe I have seen the consequence of this philosophy on those extreme hoarding shows. In a flabby economy, it is more blessed to borrow than to buy, to paraphrase St. Paul.

The second problem is that some very worthwhile books are no longer in publication, which means that you could go to second-hand booksellers, but still not be guaranteed a coveted title. Here you are writing your thesis on molecular changes in Artesian micro shrimp caused by cell phone tower emissions, and your public bookstore doesn't even have the book you need. Ridiculous! And if you do find the title, you may have to hand over your first-born child to acquire a copy. Not good. Not even if your first-born did just redesign the front quarter-panel on your new family sedan.

Enter the Public Library (Whistles! Applause! Victorious marching music!) and a charming little convention called an Inter-Library Loan (we in the biz remove the hyphen, so as not to sell out to the Man). With an interlibrary loan, you can request books from all over the United States. You can get bestselling novels or deeply arcane scholarly treatises. You can get limited publication editions, and out-of-print volumes. You can request and receive movies, magazine articles or whole magazines, music CDs and newspapers, in short anything that circulates in a library somewhere. There are a few items which are rare enough or fragile enough that the resident libraries choose not to lend them. In these cases, you can request them to send you photocopies or scans of a small number of selected pages. This last is useful if you are pursuing research and only need the specific reference. I once received microfiche which originated in Germany. Here's how it works:

Your library will usually have a link from it's homepage which indicates that this service is available and which takes you to a page explaining how to borrow. If you have trouble finding the link, call the library and they will happily guide you. Once there, the process will require 1) that you have a library card active in the system and 2) that you create an online presence. This latter is a facilitator; chances are the library already has the minimal amount of information it wants you to plug in here. It is merely an easy and efficient way to process your requests. They won't ask for any identifying birthmarks or tattoos, and the most intrusive information may be a phone or e-mail to inform you when your item arrives. Here's the best part - it costs NOTHING. Ok, once in a while, a library may have a fee for photocopying, but you can say up front that you wish not to pay. You don't even have to explain that your kid is at a private university and you are reduced to getting your newspaper out of the neighbor's yard. Most libraries will still send a small number of pages for free.

Once you are logged in to the ILL system, it will link you to WorldCat, a worldwide catalog which includes an enormous number of public and private libraries. You will search this catalog much as you would the one on your local library's webpage. Once you have identified and clicked on your item, you will see a link, usually highlighted in red, to borrow. Clicking on this link will carry over all the book information your home library will need. Since you are logged into your "account" the system will automatically know who wants the loan.
This account should also allow you to track progress, see what you have out, and see requests that are pending. Once you click "submit," the request goes to the ILL Genii.

The ILL genii in each library system sort all things out, send forth your request, receive and process the items and send them to your branch for pickup. Just think - the library book that touched the hands of Zac Ephron in L.A. could be in daughter Mindy's hands in as little as two short weeks. (Nah - he probably buys his books.) The loan period varies per library, but a temporary sticker or label on the book will give you a due date. To return the item, simply take it back to your branch library. (p.s. Don't think because the item came from a far away library that they will never know if you keep it - remote lending libraries are remarkably humorless and severe when it comes to a breach of faith such as this.)

So now even if the philistines in your local library fail to grasp the importance of owning every volume of Fungus Growing Magazine, you can still be up to speed. Is this a great country or what?!

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