Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Hang-Glide of Inter-library Loan

It's a system patrons used more than 500 times at NPL in the last year, and demand is on the rise.

That is, NPL patrons borrowed books from other libraries through Interlibrary Loan. Correspondingly, more than 500 patrons from other libraries borrowed books from NPL. The system, librarians from here and elsewhere, makes the relevance of the small, local library possible.

At NPL the process starts with a patron request. We scour our own catalog first, just to make sure that the book is indeed not a part of our collection, and then ask whether the patron would like for us to find it through ILL.

"Us" is actually Lisa Milchman, our ILL goddess (my term, not hers), and she performs this job masterfully. Lisa double-checks our collection, gathers more request information from a couple of data bases, which include entries from all registered public, school, and college libraries, and begins the process of tracking the book down. She then takes to the telephone or email to make her request and gets information on the book's availability.

"About 90 per cent of our requests can be filled from somewhere in the
state of Vermont," says Lisa. The other 10 per cent will either come from out of state (recently from as far as Kansas and California) or ultimately be unavailable. It's the rare book that's unavailable.

Timing does play a key role, however. Books that have been in a library's collection for only three to six months can be in such demand at the home library as to be unavailable for interlibrary loan. In that case, some waiting is advised.

Once books are located and permission for the loan is granted by the sending library, the U.S. Postal Service steps into the picture. A book of average size costs about $2.25 to mail at the library/media rate. Books circulate for two weeks, with renewal possible, though not always. Renewal depends on the demand, or lack of it, at the home library. If a patron has requested it there, home it must go. It's best to call or email Lisa a couple of days in advance of the due date to request renewal so that she has time to contact the sending library. Fines for overdue ILL books are comparatively high, 50 cent a day, to underscore the importance that NPL places on holding up its end of the borrowing bargain.

There have been some recent bumps on the road to interlibrary loan efficiency. One is an increasing number of overdue books. "Interlibrary loans operate on a basis of good faith," Lisa explains. "We're trying to get back a book right now that was lent to us months ago, an older, somewhat rare book. We can't even contact the patron anymore. It's probably going to cost us about $50 to replace, and there's the feeling that we've let the
sending library down."

Another of Lisa's druthers is that patrons who have found alternate means of getting a book they've requested would let her know by phone or email that they no longer need the interlibrary loan. "We don't mind the actual cost of a book that someone's going to use, but we'd rather not lay out the cost for something that nobody will pick up."