It’s quite a mouthful: Interlibrary Loan. But it would be wise to remember this phrase as it could be your new best friend!
Depending on your local public library, Interlibrary Loan (ILL – sometimes known as Resource Sharing) may be a service that is promoted, simply extant, hidden, or not available – you may need to read the services fine print to learn about your library’s ILL offerings.
Most public libraries are eager to borrow the items you need for research, when feasible. However, the research needs of the genealogist can be challenging for Interlibrary Loan services. Let’s explore the obstacles, tips and tricks of this underused, and often misunderstood service.
What IS Interlibrary Loan?
In a nutshell, this is a networked loan program between libraries, allowing patrons to borrow from outside collections. Most of these libraries are connected electronically through their membership in OCLC: Online Computer Library Center – which also happens to run WorldCat, the world’s largest library catalog.
Tip #1: Remember these terms: Borrower and Lender. They are exactly as they sound, but the Borrower is not you – you are the patron or customer and the library borrowing on your behalf is the Borrower. The lending library is the Lender. Contrary to perceptions, the ILL transaction is a contract between the two libraries – NOT between the patron and the lending library. This way, both parties agree to certain standards during the transaction, even if things get damaged or lost in the mail, there is already a protocol in place to resolve the situation.
Through OCLC, each library will request materials on your behalf via the ILL software of their choice that will talk to OCLC, asking if the lending library is willing to lend an item. Each loan is considered based on a few questions:
- Is the item available for loan? (Many items do not circulate due to various factors: Is it currently checked out to someone else? – Is it rare or archival, and does not circulate?)
- Can they supply the item within a few days? (4 days is the standard turn around time)
- Does the library charge a fee to loan?
- Are there special use restrictions?
- Is the item an article? – Articles are also available through this type of service.
Tip #2: You can be proactive in determining the likelihood of your ILL success. When using WorldCat to look for your needed title or article, you can make note of a couple of things for your librarian: The OCLC number, which can be found in the details section of the book record in OCLC – this will ensure that they borrow the exact edition you have found. Also, read the fine print: Is this an e-book edition, or an archival item? (Look for a print edition of your needed title as these are best for ILL – except in cases of e-resource agreements between certain libraries) Neither may be able to be borrowed, but if you are desperate, you can discuss photocopy options with your librarian.
What does ILL cost?
This program may be free for you, but depending on the location of the needed item, you may incur some fees. Many libraries belong to nearby or specialty networks that agree to free loans under reciprocal agreements. Sometimes, articles are included, but sometimes they are only supplied for a fee. So, be prepared for a fee structure running from free to about $20.00 per transaction.
Tip #3: Ask about ILL fees prior to submitting a request. For some libraries, they have decided to offer ILL services at no cost to the patron. Others provide this service for free IF they can borrow from a free lender. If they can only find your item through a fee-based lender, they may pass the charge on to you – it is safer to ask about their fee policies prior to submitting an order.
Let’s Talk Genealogy Materials
This is the bad news about ILL. We genealogists are usually on the hunt for obscure material. What exactly falls under the term “obscure”? Microfilm, family histories, local histories, archival/manuscripts or rare books. These items have a high chance of falling under “restricted” material.
“So, what is the point of this post, if I can’t borrow genealogical material?”
You can – but not always. This is just a word of caution to be realistic in your expectations.
Access versus Preservation:
While libraries are in the information providing business, many of them are also in the preservation business. Your natural inclination may be to argue that since you can’t get this information elsewhere, they should be willing to provide it. (Trust me, I’ve heard this argument more times than I care to count.) But think about it, if there is only one or two copies in existence, why endanger the item by placing it in a mail service where it could get lost? – As in, FOREVER, so that no one sees it ever again! Depending on the number of copies available worldwide, preservation can sometimes outweigh access – just be prepared for that scenario.
Tip #4: What to do if your material falls under this category? 1. Look for a copy to purchase online, through Amazon, Ebay, or the librarian’s friend: Bookfinder.com. 2. Look at the description of the book, is it small or really large? Does it have an index so that you can request look-ups or copies of certain pages? If archival, does it have a Finding Aid to help you identify the portions you would like photocopied? Many libraries are willing to copy portions of restricted material, because, after all, they still enjoy providing access to information. 3. Look at the publication year, is it old enough to be in the public domain and may have been digitized in its entirety through Google Books or the Internet Archive? Many of the older family and local histories are available for free download through these sites. Also, don’t forget to try the books section of FamilySearch.
The above section was only meant as a caution – not to discourage. Regardless of what you find, ILL is a program in place to help patrons get the information they need – so use it! One of the really great uses for ILL is genealogy education and historical context study. Did you see a great new genealogy or history title out there that you’d like to use, but it’s just too expensive? Try ILL – the more recent titles (even recent local histories), owned by multiple libraries, have a high chance of being loaned out.
Tip #5: If you borrow a book through ILL, READ IT – and do not dawdle! ILL books will usually arrive with a generous loan period of around a month, but many do not allow renewals. So, get cracking on that title once it comes in!
The Gems in Those Smaller Libraries
OK, I’m talking very small libraries. The ones so small that they do not pay for membership in OCLC. Since your method of requesting material began with a WorldCat search, just remember that not every library can afford membership in this service. If you find out that a smaller non-OCLC library owns the title you need, you can still ask your librarian about ILL. There is a paper form that can be used between the libraries for these types of transactions.
Tip #6: So, you can’t find the title you need in WorldCat. Look at the title from a regional eye. Where was it published, and where is the subject material from? Then canvas the local area for smaller libraries and archives – they may have their own catalog – or, give them a call. You might be surprised at the number of small libraries “off the grid” that house those obscure titles and archives.
What About Historical Societies?
As a state historical society library, our catalog is connected to OCLC. However, it was only recently that we began loaning our books. As a new option for access, we decided to loan out duplicate material, or material small enough that we could create a circulating copy. Much of our library still does not circulate, but we have a lot of duplicate local/county/family histories that just might be the key to your research. As for other state historical societies, it depends. I’ve seen some connected to their local universities for the service, or some that just do not loan at all. In those cases, you are encouraged to call and discuss photocopy options.
Last Word About Microfilm:
As the Family Search microfilm lending program ended, we are resigned to waiting for digital copies of records. However, for many local newspapers, only a portion has been digitized through online databases. Multitudes await your use through the microfilm reader. Some libraries are great at lending these, but many are not. Different types of libraries, such as university libraries are much more eager to loan microfilm than public libraries – but don’t forget, all of these OCLC connected libraries loan to each other, regardless of library type – so, again, it’s well worth a try!
Happy researching! Cheri Daniels, MSLS Your Genealogy Librarian
I am writing this post with gritted teeth and a fake smile upon my lips – retaining a professional demeanor in the face of such a dangerous fallacy can be almost impossible. But I promised you undiluted genealogy – and here comes test case number 1! Quick – go get a cup of tea before reading further!
Just this morning, on Facebook – the disseminator of both good and evil genealogy advice – a woman was asking for research location tips from her fellow genealogical researchers. As several gave her great insights, one person declared that:
“So many Kentucky records are online that it is rarely necessary to do onsite research anymore.”
She then proceeded to list about 3 wonderful online repositories….which was helpful, in a way….but with no cautionary caveats.
Two of the three online resources she shared should have come with cautions: The first one links to an aggregated collection of digitized items from around the state, including maps and newspapers – but what she doesn’t know, is that this site is in limbo, and most early participants no longer share digitization efforts on this site – most have created their own online portals for digitized records. The other site is a go-to for land records, and I recommend this one to researchers all the time – but caution that state budget cuts hit them hard, and digitization efforts had to stop short of the entire collection – some onsite visits would be necessary to access any records past a certain year.
Now, I understand that the standard researcher will not have knowledge of these limitations – but the overall impression of digitized record repositories containing complete collections, thereby eliminating a need for onsite research is FALSE!! FICTION!!! JUST PLAIN WRONG!! In fact, DANGEROUSLY WRONG!!
Why dangerous? Because the libraries and archives that contain our history operate on funding – local, state, or federal funding. What happens when the visitation numbers go down to a point that makes the keepers of the funds question their allocation that year? They cut, and they cut some more….and they hear local/national statements about everything being online, and they cut further…until access or existence is in extreme danger.
I was recently told a scary story (just in time for Halloween) about the construction of a new county courthouse – the locals in charge of building said courthouse, decided to opt for a closet sized research table to access records, because “No one conducts onsite research anymore – it’s all available on Ancestry!”
How do we stop this madness?
You MUST conduct your research using a tandem approach – and abandon the research vacuum of online only records!
1. PLEASE stop perpetuating the myth of online-only access. Just think about statistical probabilities alone – they are staggering. Since we’ve only been digitizing things for about the past 10-15 years (larger institutions), only a tiny portion has been digitized. And so many smaller institutions are not digitizing at all because of low staffing, technology and budget constraints. The libraries and archives of the world maintain huge collections of local records and family records – primary sources that can obliterate your brick wall! But if we encourage others to research in both places – online AND onsite, budgets grow, and online access continues to grow….otherwise, with the demise of research repositories because of a myth, we run the risk of endangering the existence of our history – and stopping the digitization efforts! Trust me, the digitization budgets are connected to the libraries and archives – you cannot have one without the other.
2. Run tandem research all the time – begin with online sources (images of primary sources hosted on main sites, such as Ancestry and Family Search) – noting the original location of these records. After building your research foundations with the wonderful digitized documents available to us, move to other online resources. Take a virtual tour of the libraries and archives of your state, region, and county of focus. Comb their websites and online catalogs to see what they have – look for several things: catalogs that list many of their items AND separate links that house archival finding aids or any digitization efforts they may be running. Remember: Even catalogs have limitations, and may not contain a list of EVERYTHING in their collection. Also, smaller county historical/genealogical societies may not have a website at all, or if they do, they may only list their location – not a list of what they have. Personal contact would be necessary in this instance.
3. Head out on the road! Now that you have a research plan as to the locations and collections you want to see, you will be much more successful in your results. Be ready to experience some amazing bonuses along the way! By visiting the area of your ancestral home, you will gain an understanding that is unparalleled. You see the geography, breathe the air, and talk with the people of your homeland. Contextual knowledge of your ancestral community is a vital part to understanding your ancestors. Plus, your visit, though a tad costly, helps maintain the existence of these storehouses of history and information.
In short – always think of research as a multi-dimensional process. We are fortunate enough to have wonderful records at the tip of our fingers via super digitization efforts of many – but our research should NEVER stop there! Our storehouses of history contain the family records we need: Bible records, genealogy research files, correspondence, diaries, photos, school and Church records, etc. A fundamental principle of the Genealogical Proof Standard is “conducting a reasonably exhaustive search” – NEWSFLASH – online only research is NEVER a reasonably exhaustive search!