This Just In: ILL is Important!

August 2, 2007

I apologize for the hiatus. I was on vacation and then I was digging out from under the piles in my office. I was not kidnapped by the legions of cheerleaders that have descended en masse on the campus this last week (apparently we host cheer camp, who knew?!?!?).

During my absence a white paper was released by the Association of Research Libraries all about ILL services. I tend to like anything and everything that gives ILL some well deserved attention.  I had and have the pleasure of supervising truly wonderful ILL staff.  If you want to find a group of people truly committed to providing outstanding customer service look no further than the ILL department.

The paper highlights current trends in ILL citing that ILL activity is up in the United States and that the majority of this increase is for returnable items (books, media, etc.) versus non-returnables (photocopies of journal articles, book chapters, etc.).  The paper points out that the ARL statistics do not distinguish between returnable and non-returnable items, something I regard as an important distinction that should be included.

The article states several reasons for the increase in ILL activity:

  • an increase in discovery tools, such as indices, searching the Web, and Google Books heightening people’s awareness of publications thus requesting the items
  • research and academic libraries making the ILL process simpler, improving delivery options, and decreasing turn around time
  • flat or decreasing collections budgets

I think these are all very valid reasons.  The paper does mention user-initiated borrowing in its discussion of simplifying the request process, which definitely has an impact on the number of requests patrons make.  However, I think the increase is due to mostly to a combination of the second and third points.  With collections budgets decreasing or remaining flat and the cost of serials increasing each year, libraries find themselves deciding to either purchase books or serials.  The serials tend to always win.

In order to continue to provide patrons with the necessary print resources many libraries are looking at collaborative collection development where the libraries purchase one or two copies for the entire system or consortia and allow universal borrowing.  More and more union catalogs are being created to facilitate this type of discovery and borrowing.  As libraries collectively purchase more journal subscriptions they find the uniqueness of each institution’s journal collection decreasing, which in turn leads to a decrease in non-returnable ILL requests.   The uniqueness of a library’s monograph collection also has an impact on returnable ILL requests.  If the institution has the only large collection of a certain discipline in the system or region, it will probably be a net Lender and vice versa.

I could wax on and on about ILL for hours, but the bottomline of this paper is that ILL activity is increasing and the trend will probably continue.   Now why do I find this significant and important?  I have worked for several libraries where the administration really wanted and expected ILL to generate revenue or at the very least cost-recovery.  I never agreed with this idea.  Partly because the libraries I worked at were typically net lenders and did very little borrowing so there was never an even equation.  Most of the lending was with libraries and institutions that we had reciprocal agreements with so we rarely charged for the service.  I always felt that expecting a profit sort of flew in the face of the spirit of the service.  It really isn’t about making money.  It’s about providing the patron with the resource and providing that resource as quickly as possible.

So why is this specific trend important?  Well, it comes down to processing and delivery time and allocating resources.  As several of my staff mentioned to me after reading this, this is vindication for all of the work and effort.  Processing a returnable request is more involved than a non-returnable because essentially it is a two sided process.  There is the sending and the receiving of the item as opposed to just the sending. The more of these requests that come in, the longer the time to process them.  I think it is a great testament to the staff that even with this increase our turnaround time is 24 hours or less.  That is quite a feat!

Needless to say if this trend continues decisions about staffing, delivery and workflows will need to be modified and changed.  This is definitely a library trend to watch.   It is nice to see ILL get the recognition it deserves.  It is the one unit and service that, in every library I have worked in, was constantly complimented and recognized by faculty and students as the wonderful service it is.

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