Interlibrary Loan: How to Access Nearly Any Book in Any Library in the U.S.

It has nothing to do with your local consortium of libraries.

Very often I see people complain that their library does not carry the books they want and often this complaint is used as a justification for piracy.  However, library users typically have access to far more books than the ones currently sitting on the shelf of their home library.  In fact, through the magic of interlibrary loan (ILL), the average library user in the United States has access to potentially any book owned by any library, public or academic, in the country.

Even avid library users sometimes fail to take advantage of ILL, however, because they mistake it for something else: the collection of local libraries with which theirs is affiliated.  In this case, library users understand that they have access to more than just their home library; they also have access to the collections of libraries in the near vicinity.  You can typically discover your library’s affiliates by using the online catalog.  A drop-down menu will provide you the names of different libraries whose collections you can search–or you can choose to search all their collections at the same time.  Once you have located the book you desire, you place it on hold through the catalog by typing in your library card number and PIN.  The book is then placed in a van and driven to your chosen pick-up location (probably your home library).  In this way, you can borrow books from a few to even dozens of affiliated libraries.

Interlibrary loan, however, does not limit users to borrowing only from a handful of affiliated local libraries, but allows users to borrow from nearly any library in the United States.  To take advantage of ILL, you will not be able to place a hold through the library catalog.  Instead, you will have to submit an ILL request.  Typically, you can do this by calling the library, stopping at the ILL or Reference desk, sending an email to the ILL department, or filling out an online ILL request form.  They will ask for as much information as possible–title, author, publication date, specified edition required, etc.–so be prepared.  After your request is submitted, the ILL librarians will attempt to track down a copy of your desired book.  They will submit a request to the owning library for the book to be mailed to your home library.  Then, once it arrives, you will receive an email or phone call for pick-up.  It’s truly magical!

So why don’t more people use ILL?  In many cases, library users may simply not realize ILL is available to them.  However, others dislike the inconvenience of ILL.  Other libraries will not typically mail newly acquired titles to other libraries, so you cannot get new releases this way.  Additionally, there is a waiting time for an ILL (since it needs to be tracked down, approved, and mailed) and some people want a book immediately or they do not wish to have to return to the library at an unspecified time (since you never really know when your ILL will come in).  Some libraries charge nominal fees for ILL and patrons do not wish to pay.  And some patrons dislike that the average ILL cannot be renewed.  (You can sometimes ask for an extension, but I’ve never received one.)

Still, I think the benefits of ILL outweigh the negatives.  I’d rather wait for an ILL and pay a nominal fee rather than have to buy a book full price.  And I like to support libraries.  Higher circulation numbers give libraries the chance to advocate for more funding, which means they can buy more books.  Even if someone cannot afford to support authors by paying full price for every book they read, they can indirectly support authors by supporting libraries who do buy books.

So spread the word!  Tell your friends!  Interlibrary loan exists and it is awesome!

23 thoughts on “Interlibrary Loan: How to Access Nearly Any Book in Any Library in the U.S.

  1. Arya D. @Arya's Fangirl Lexicon says:

    Thank you for such an informational post! I’ve seen the link for ILL before but never fully understood what it was so I never dug deeper. So far I’ve been able to find the books I have been looking for in my library system but I’m glad I have another resource for future use.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      ILL is truly one of the best things to happen to me. Especially since budget cuts mean my library can’t afford as many books as they used to. But it is kind of a secret service!


  2. jenchaos76 says:

    My books come from all over northern Ohio. I order them online and because of this interlibrary loan system, I can get most titles I want. Additionally, many of the materials are available digitally. There is always an option.

    I am pleased this system is in place because my branch does not carry full series or any of the books I like. Mostly, the downtown branch has my books. Because of this system, I never have to go downtown .


  3. Sara @ CRB says:

    I’ve never used ILL for pleasure-reading, but it saved my butt with a research paper for a college course a few semesters ago! It’s a really great system and one I hadn’t heard about until I needed to use it for that paper. I agree it’s definitely something readers should take advantage of!


  4. David says:

    I think some of my undergrad thesis resources came through ILL, but I’ve never had to use it since. My county library system has had everything I’ve wanted from them so far. I never lack for interesting reading material. What a glorious luxury!


      • David says:

        I’m also pretty flexible about what I read next, since I always pick up books from the library sales. But my county libraries seem to be pretty varied.


          • David says:

            Oh no! My friend just published a paper on Lord Dunsany’s “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” in a prestigious Irish literary review, so I went online to my library’s catalog but couldn’t find the book! Now I’m annoyed with them. I just might have to go in and…*gasp*…talk to an actual librarian…


  5. Grab the Lapels says:

    I read this post specifically because I am not a fan of ILL because I can’t figure out how to use the darn thing. I see that there is a button on the library website that tells you where copies of the book are across the country, but then I can never figure out how to get that book to me. I think using a librarian to help is a great idea, but sometimes they simply tell me they don’t have the book. I’m going to be more aggressive in the future.


    • Krysta says:

      A lot of libraries have access to WorldCat, which lets you see where books are, but I’ve never seen the point of as you can’t ILL through it. (Sometimes I have used WorldCat to see where the closest copy is to me, just to get a sense how how common the title is/how far it might have to travel to get to me.) I’ve always had to submit an ILL form through the website or had to go in person to fill out a form. Most libraries have specific ILL librarians who work at the reference desk so maybe you can ask who’s in charge and how they want you to submit requests? It seems like your library website is not particularly informative!

      But I definitely understand your sense of frustration. I have met many a librarian who seemed annoyed by having to do their job and met some who would refuse to get me books I wanted because the books were in storage and they didn’t want to have to walk there. They weren’t busy. They just didn’t want to have to move.


      • Grab the Lapels says:

        Yes! World Cat! That’s what I was thinking of. Maybe I was just asking the wrong questions. This is all great to know, as I’m trying to not buy books and support libraries instead.


        • Krysta says:

          Well, I’m convinced that libraries in general don’t do a good job of marketing or explaining their services. I think typically they assume everyone knows, but you can’t really know about something no one explains, can you?

          Yeah, I don’t have space for many books right now so I primarily use the library. Plus it saves me money and I don’t end up with books I didn’t even like.


  6. Angela @ Angel's Guilty Pleasures says:

    Wonderful post. I didn’t know about ILL until this year when my library didn’t have a book I wanted, but they offer a search on Link+, that’s what they call it and I found the book their. It’s a great service. I agree the wait isn’t something I like. I want the book now, but I’m an avoid supporter of the library and using it’s resources, so I’m made a point on waiting and picking out other books in the mean time that are available now to read.


  7. erickaonpaper says:

    This is perfect! I’ve never heard of ILL before. I’m very grateful to be able to live in NYC and have a library around every corner, but for smaller towns/cities, this is incredibly helpful!


Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.