How To Make Inter-Library Loan Really Work for You

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Anna Gooding-Call

Staff Writer

Anna Gooding-Call is a librarian and writer originally from rural central New York. She got her BA in the city that inspired "The Twilight Zone" and confirms that the hitchhikers really are weird there. Today, she lives in Massachusetts with her wife and two cats.

Anna Gooding-Call

Staff Writer

Anna Gooding-Call is a librarian and writer originally from rural central New York. She got her BA in the city that inspired "The Twilight Zone" and confirms that the hitchhikers really are weird there. Today, she lives in Massachusetts with her wife and two cats.


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ILL stands for Inter-Library Loan, and it’s every bit as magical as it sounds. When one library doesn’t actually own an item that you want, they can place a request for it from another library, essentially borrowing the book for you from another institution. This process is free (mostly; some libraries charge shipping or a small fee if you’re a heavy user) and opens the entire world to you. Whether you need a textbook or just an ultra-rare copy of Warrior Wolf Women of the Wasteland, ILL is where you need to be.

Know the ILL Landscape

Your ILL options will vary considerably from area to area. ILL borrowing between consortia, cooperative, or system member libraries is usually very fast and easy, so if you’ve got one, good for you. For example, if you live in Boston, you may be part of the Metro Boston Library Network. This network encompasses several awesome branches including the Boston Public Library. If this is your situation, ILL is probably not going to ever be a problem for you, because Boston will almost always send your library whatever you ask for. As in the case of the libraries of Beantown, the institution that owns the book you want may even share a catalog and an online interface with your home library, making the entire process nearly seamless.

Some places also have systems whereby you can easily borrow a book from anywhere in the state. Massachusetts is like this, as is Texas. That’s usually a little more involved than an in-network loan, because the libraries involved don’t share one catalog, but people do it every day. I just put an ILL request into Massachusetts’s statewide ILL system, the Commonwealth Catalog. So there.

In addition to local ILL, there’s the worldwide OCLC system, which is searchable through WorldCat. There are literally libraries from all over the world in that system. Almost every library, public and academic, in the U.S. is listed. Libraries as far-flung as the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and the London Borough of Brent appear there. 

A Little More About WorldCat

What’s important to note about WorldCat is that a lot of its profiles aren’t associated with loanable items. There are books in those places, to be sure, but in cases where there seem to be no books to borrow, the library isn’t actively participating in the WorldCat system. That’s when you’re going to need to ask your librarian — very nicely — to make a phone call.

This presumes that you’ve already gone to the library’s own website and gotten access to their local catalog, found the item that you want there, and are able to communicate that information to your librarian. Public librarians generally do not have the time to find unlisted ILLs for you — this is an incredibly labor-intensive process, often aided by prior familiarity with the item via a bibliography or citation. Academic librarians may have more leeway to help you explore if you’re not already certain of the title and the location of the item that you need.

Once you’ve found the McGuffin, unlisted though it may be in Worldcat, your librarian may be able to execute that rarest and most difficult of library expert maneuvers — the point to point request. This is essentially a personal ask that involves making temporary records, swearing up and down that the item will return, and possibly paying shipping. Point to point requests often fail, are hard to manage en masse, and almost never succeed when an ocean is involved, so librarians try to avoid them. That said, refusal to try leads to failure every time, so go for it.

You Can Get All Kinds of Stuff Through ILL

Books, movies, music and all, it’s generally available through your ILL platform. There are libraries still lending VHS through WorldCat. Amish Vampires in Space is still out there somewhere. Libraries that hold these items are quite happy to loan them — the circulation stats from ILL are significant and count toward libraries’ budgets. Most books don’t go out much after their initial popularity dies down, so it’s a real gift when a library gets a request for something that’s just sitting on a shelf collecting dust.

Know Your Librarian

You may think you know how to place an ILL order. You don’t. Not like your librarian does. Inter-library loan is a vast web of interrelated alliances, tradeoffs, and associations, coupled with a deep knowledge of the many quirks of metadata management. The more local an ILL order is, the more likely you’ll be able to handle it yourself.

Within a system or consortia, don’t bother asking for help. Within a state, consider trying it yourself if your area is set up for that, but don’t feel bad if you’ve got to ask for help. Just don’t even try with WorldCat. If you put in an order for a rare VHS in WorldCat, you’re definitely not getting it — it’s valuable and old and nobody’s loaning it to anybody. But your librarian might be able to finagle something — if not the item itself, then maybe a copy of it, if applicable. You’ll only know if you talk to them about ILL instead of trying to wrangle it yourself. 

Some Things Just Aren’t There

There is no Thankskilling 2. There just isn’t. Stop looking for it. Embrace the misery of its nonexistence. Move onward with your life. ILL cannot help you. 

In some situations, a piece of media that is not available on ILL might appear on or some other online streaming platform. In other cases, you’re chasing a dream. Believe it or not, libraries don’t stock (or catalog) everything that’s ever been published. After a certain point, you’re going to need to look elsewhere for your copy of The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, The Death of Teddy’s Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo.

Good Things Sometimes Come To Those Who Wait

ILL items undergo a long and dangerous trek from their homes to your library. Generally, libraries won’t send stuff overseas, but it’s easy to accidentally order something from, say, France. If this kind of request somehow goes through, you’re looking at a wait time of months for an item that AbeBooks might have been able to get you in days. (Once again, get your librarian’s help when using WorldCat. I can’t stress this enough.) But even if it’s just coming from Des Moines, you could wait weeks for that item. Libraries aren’t going to pay for priority shipping. All the emphasis on the time-sensitive nature of your request will not move the laws of physics or the Postal Service an inch. If you need it by tomorrow, you’re better off cutting your losses and buying it.

Furthermore, your first request may be declined if the library is too far away or the item is fragile. As long as you have time, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should give up. There may be other editions in other records or locations that your librarian can hunt down for you. However, all of this work could take weeks or longer. Settle in with another item on your TBR list. 

Want more to celebrate about library loans and holds? Check out Rachel Wagner’s Ode to Library Holds.