A common complaint I see from bloggers is that they do not use the public library because it does not stock the books they want. Some use this an excuse to pirate books instead. A well-kept secret, however, is that nearly every library in the United States participates in an interlibrary loan program. This means that they can request a book from almost every library–public or academic–in the country and have it mailed to your home library for you to check out. In other words, no library user is limited only to the books their own library carries. Each library user has access to the catalogs of almost every single library in the country.
Interlibrary Loan: Not to Be Confused with Your Local Consortium
Some library patrons do not take advantage of interlibrary loan because they confuse it with the system of local libraries with which theirs is affiliated. (Some libraries make it confusing because they actually refer to this system as “interlibrary loan.”) Most libraries in the U.S. have partnered with local libraries–perhaps from surrounding towns, maybe from the entire state if the state is small–so that patrons can request books from these neighboring institutions and have them delivered via van. Usually, patrons can make these requests directly from the catalog. They have a rough idea of when the books will arrive because the van has a regular schedule. The books check out as normal on their card and obey the usual rules of library books. Interlibrary loan, however, is different.
Interlibrary loan pulls books–and journal articles– from across the United States.
The process of an interlibrary loan (ILL) is different, and a little more complicated, than requesting books from your local consortium. ILL is typically not accessed through the catalog. Usually, there is a separate online form, or you might have to speak with or email a reference librarian. The ILL form you need to submit will ask for information like the title of the book, the author, the publisher, and the publication date. Once the form is submitted, an ILL librarian has to check which libraries own the book you want. They then contact the owning library and see if the library is willing to mail the book to your home library so you can check it out. In this way, a patron from Wyoming, for example, could receive a book from Massachusetts, Georgia, or California. The book could come from literally anywhere in the country!
Why don’t more people use interlibrary loan?
Many people do not use interlibrary loan simply because they do not know it exists. Public libraries do not do a very good job of advertising this service. Even people who have submitted ILL requests for college often do not realize public libraries offer the same service.
Others dislike that ILL is more inconvenient than checking out a book already on the shelf. You have to submit a form, you have to wait a few weeks for the request to be processed and mailed, and then you have to return to the library to pick it up before your hold expires. Often, ILLs do not renew the same way as other books, so you will have to contact your library so they can contact the owning library to see if you can get a renewal. And some libraries charge a nominal fee for the service (mine charged 50 cents), which some patrons dislike. (In my opinion, however, paying a small fee is preferable to paying full price for the book.)
Additionally, libraries do not lend out their new books. Their taxpayers have first rights to their books; libraries do not want to purchase a book and then send it across the country as soon as it arrives. Bloggers looking to review books as soon as they are published will not find ILL useful in this regard.
Interlibrary loan is one of the best-kept secrets of the public library. With the submission of a form, library patrons can access nearly any book in nearly every public and academic library in the United States. Your public library doesn’t have the book you want? No problem. Try interlibrary loan.