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One more notch up Maslow’s hierarchy

Today is the go-live day of MPOW’s OCLC authorization for interlibrary loan. Prior to this, our ILL procedure involved paper forms, which partly explains why we did 4 ILLs last year, the other half of that being that we charged patrons, and the third half being that we hadn’t conditioned patrons that we provide this service.

So let me digress from the momentous occasion to ponder charging for ILLs. If we buy a book we think patrons might use, we don’t charge them. If we buy a book a patron requests, we don’t charge them. So why do some libraries–most of them, perhaps?–charge patrons for interlibrary loans, in some cases passing on the entire cost, in other cases charging a flat fee?

The answer can’t be that libraries are poor, because the syllogism then fails, due to the other conditions. My guess is it’s a mix of habit plus a view of the library budget that is focused on thingies rather than services (theĀ  ownership/access seesaw). Charging for ILLs is also oriented toward the idea that the library makes most of the collection decisions. An ILL is, after all, a patron-driven selection.

Meanwhile, I need to get up and out, but–call me Nerdbrarian–my heart flutters that My Place of Work now has the capability to request and provide items worldwide. We’re still in need of procedures, policies, training, and marketing, but we have a chassis with four wheels and an engine in it!

Oh, and on conditioning patrons: at the EPA library I managed in the late 1990s, my boss, an engineer and a huge library supporter, said “People need to be conditioned to use libraries.” It’s absolutely true. A library is a truly amazing service, so amazing that no one could possibly divine all the things it can do for people. We can have wonderful services, but if patrons don’t know about them, the job isn’t complete.

Posted on this day, other years:

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  1. Karen-

    As a former public library administrator I can answer one part of why we charged … it was a way to ration use of an expensive resource. Especially in the “old days” before shared/electronic catalogs, the amount of staff time required was huge. Remember “verifying” your requests? I spent a lot of student hours doing that end of the job!

    Another reason for cost was postage. That is a real “out-of-pocket” cost for libraries, and if your budget was stretched as tightly as some of mine were, you needed to have some cost recovery.

    Having said that, I also agree that library budgets are focused on ownership. I’ll further note that we as librarians are much more happy to share than the politicians (at least in the public sphere) who value the ownership which is primarily paid for by local property taxes. That is: “Why should *my* library help subsidize the folks in the next town who pay less in taxes and can use the materials *my* tax dollar pays for.” [Not saying I agree, but the view is very widely held.]

    Good luck with your new ILL experiences.

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  2. sarah wrote:

    ILL has been a part of Iowa libraries for some time. Here, the State Lib sets the max price you can charge for ILL at $2 to cover postage. We have a lot of small libraries in Iowa and some of those libraries are poor. Our small library doesn’t charge, as we feel it’s a service we need to provide to offer our patrons the widest range of materials possible, but the bigger library the next town over does. I think it’s just what people can afford.

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  3. sarah wrote:

    I also wanted to add that our library usually deals with around 10 ILL’s a week, whether it’s incoming or outgoing requests. In Iowa, it’s really being taken advantage of!

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  4. Daniel G wrote:


    We charge our students $2 per article and are considering dropping it to $1. We feel we need to charge *something* to help them narrow their focus, i.e. to decide if they really need that article for their paper or if they’re just ordering every citation they come across.

    Thanks for the thoughtful posts!


    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  5. Jennie wrote:

    I think there’s a difference between public and academic libraries in this case. I wouldn’t expect ILL to be “free” at my public library, but I would expect it to be included in my tuition/fees at an academic library. This is part of the cost of doing business to meet the academic/scholarly needs of our community.

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Julie wrote:

    Cost is certainly part of it. At my (prosperous, well-supported) local public library I can almost always get free ILL. But I notice that changing as tax revenues have fallen. Now the fee the lending library charges is often passed on, and if I specify that I won’t pay I don’t get the item, unless there’s a non-charging library that will lend it.
    And yes, I remember the days of typing duplicate paper forms and verifying titles in Mansell. Doing that work got me through college, but boy was it tedious!

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink
  7. GinaP wrote:


    I get the logic of what you are saying, but I disagree, in part. In my experience, it is the public libraries that are providing ILL services at no charge. In Idaho, it’s actually considered a basic library service and, as such, libraries may not charge for a basic library service. The public already pays for it through the taxes that support the library, similar to the idea that the service is covered within one’s tuition/fees. Already paid. Charging then, to me, feels like double-dipping.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  8. Pat wrote:

    In the public library where I formerly worked, a $1.00 charge was instituted because such a high percentage of the items requested were not being picked up once they arrived. That was true both of the heavy borrowers and those with occasional ILL requests. The idea was to get people’s attention and assure that they were serious about wanting the items, while not making ILL prohibitively expensive.

    An ILLIAD user, this library already had one of the fastest turnarounds of any ILL department I’ve dealt with, so the problem with which they were coping wasn’t one of delivering materials too late.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  9. I actually get the concept of the “nuisance fee” — it’s interesting how behavior changes when even small fees are applied. $1 or $2 would do that without being unduly burdensome.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  10. Cost is not the only issue. I looked into ILL at my local public library for a book I needed to write a magazine article. ILL was free, but I was astounded that it would take 8 weeks! Luckily my local B&N had a copy of the book and I was able to make notes on the info I needed and get the article turned in by the 2-week deadline.

    Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  11. Michelle, when a library approaches acquisitions and ILL as a unified request-fulfillment problem, that doesn’t happen. Then a library can ask you when you need a book and make a buy-or-ILL decision.

    Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

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