When You Need That One and Only Book

Evan Krape, U. of Delaware

Megan Gaffney, who manages interlibrary loans at the U. of Delaware, says she got into the job "randomly" but then decided, "This is actually really fun."
September 17, 2017

A doctoral candidate has been working on her thesis for months. She finds a book that might help her connect two lines of thought, but there’s a problem: It’s only housed in one small library — in Estonia. That’s where the interlibrary-loan manager comes in.

It’s something akin to being a detective, or perhaps a particularly unappreciated sidekick. As many of the interlibrary-loan managers who spoke to The Chronicle said, no library has everything.

The job of an interlibrary-loan manager is to facilitate the exchange of books, articles, and journals among colleges. The utility flies in the face of conventional wisdom: that soon everything will be online, and there will be no need for the exchange of physical copies. "We’re finding just the opposite," said Megan R. Gaffney, the associate librarian in charge of interlibrary loans for the University of Delaware. Though she has seen a downward trend in articles and journals requested, she said, "more and more users are requesting that we borrow books."

Some requests stem from students and faculty who just want real books to hold, she said, even if a version is available digitally.

Interlibrary-loan managers describe the job like a game of hide-and-seek with particularly rare materials — like a puzzle you solve every day just to watch the pieces change. But the work matters, they say, the puzzle must be solved.

"There are researchers doing important work on campus who need materials to support that," Ms. Gaffney said. "I love being able to provide that. I love being able to hunt down something that I never thought we’d be able to borrow and say ‘Here you go, we got it.’"

Ms. Gaffney spent this summer negotiating with the National Library of Mexico for a digital copy of a rare book. The copyright laws in Mexico are finicky, she said, and a little harder to navigate. After having the faculty members interested in the manuscript sign a letter saying they would not use the materials for any illegal purposes, the librarians agreed to the loan.

Learning something new everyday — be it Mexican copyright laws or the nuances of one doctoral candidate’s research — is what Ms. Gaffney loves most about her work. When she graduated from Providence College, in Rhode Island, in 2003 with a degree in English, however, she didn’t know what she wanted to do.

"The reason I caught the interlibrary-loan bug is I randomly ended up at Yale in ILL," Ms. Gaffney said. "I think a lot of us start our careers that way, we work in a library and say, ‘This is actually really fun.’"

The job, which can pay from the mid-$30,000s to the mid-$60,000s, has two primary functions: sending requests and receiving them. Sending requests requires locating the material a librarian’s university does not store and reaching out to the library that does to see if it can lend it. When a request is received, the librarian searches through walls of books to find the edition needed and mails or scans it to the library that requested it.

The University of Delaware processes between 60,000 and 70,000 requests per year, with just slightly more requests coming in than those going out. At George Washington University, Glenn Canner said he doesn’t count the number of requests that go in and out of his office each day, but he does have a way of keeping score. "I usually picture it as ‘How many carts full of books does somebody have to process that day?’" Mr. Canner said. "It’s usually a cart or two. Sometimes three."

Mr. Canner spends most of his time managing the system, more than doing the daily processing, but when he can, he likes to help on the more difficult requests.

"When you’re helping a patron with a request, they’re starting out from a point of at least a little disappointment because they need something, and the library doesn’t have it," he said. "There’s usually a bit of detective work used to solve the mystery of the request. Once you find what’s missing, that’ll lead you to what library owns the item."

No Magical Library Bus?

Many libraries are members of OCLC Online Computer Library Incorporated, a global cooperative that connects more than 10,000 libraries worldwide. It serves as both a database to find material and as a network to smaller libraries that might not be members of the system.

Though many libraries will cover the shipping costs, Ms. Gaffney said, many people don’t realize that the services students and faculty get for free comes at a price for the library. "There is no magical library bus," Ms. Gaffney said. "We have smaller libraries that say, ‘Sure, we’ll loan you this book but we don’t have enough money in our budget for the postage.’"

Mr. Canner said he likes working with doctoral candidates and faculty members on their long-term projects. Sometimes, he said, interlibrary-loans managers will work for months or even years finding material for them. "That’s when you feel like you’ve played a major role in their research," he said.

His first experience with interlibrary loans came when he was just an undergrad at Drew University, writing an English paper on Jean Toomer’s Cane. At the time, his plans were to become a teacher or professor — something in academe that would allow him to help students.

After graduating, though, he followed his wife to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she got a master’s degree and he began working as a library clerk. He soon moved to interlibrary loans.

He spent his days in the stacks, hunting down books for someone he would most likely never meet. Back then, he said, ILL was different. "It was all very paper-based."

Now, books are traded digitally just as often as they are physically. It’s safer for rare materials to be scanned or copied than to risk shipping them across the country, and providing PDFs can take days off the wait to receive a book. Sometimes copyright laws require that a book be shipped whole, but that’s often in material that’s newer and can survive the trip without risking damage.

Tina Baich, head of resource sharing and delivery services at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said with the digitization of interlibrary loans has come stronger connections between universities. "People outside probably don’t realize how relationship-based it is," Ms. Baich said. "We know each other. You can’t know everyone — it’s a big world — but there’s a core group of people who stay involved and help people looking for things."

Ms. Baich said she loves the "mini-mysteries" each request presents and the community she gets to build through her work. Even if she leaves for another manager position, she wants to hold on to ILL. Her roots, she said, are in the library.

At Louisiana State University, the changes in interlibrary loans have meant office delivery, too, according to Megan Lounsberry, head of Interlibrary Loan Services. Ms. Lounsberry said she and her staff wanted to ensure their resources were being used when requested, and delivering the material to the faculty helps ingratiate the librarians even further into the research.

Along with the day-to-day managing of three or four interlibrary-loan staff members, managers like Ms. Lounsberry balance budgets and check copyright laws. Some journals and articles fall under special stipulations, like the "rule of five," which says if an article is used more than five times in as many years, the library has to buy it.

Her favorite part of the job, though, is working with patrons — especially on interesting, intricate projects. A few years ago, she said, a graduate student in the music department requested more than 1,000 pieces of rare scores to digitize. He was particular about composers, editions, and instruments, she said, and none of the interlibrarians had a music background.

To fulfill the request, she and her team learned the differences between scores and parts, memorized music jargon, and read up on different composers. "In the end it was wonderful because even though those scores were so rare, we managed to borrow most of what he requested," Ms. Lounsberry said.

Ms. Lounsberry, who completed her undergraduate degree in anthropology at LSU, said she initially began working in the library because she loved the university and wanted to stay there. She stayed because she, like other interlibrarians who catch the "bug," loves it.

"The work we do makes research possible. No library is going to have every single thing a researcher will need," she said. "The fact that we have access to resources not everyone can get makes us pretty important in the research process. It makes research limitless."