The Global Reach of Interlibrary Loan

by Michael Mercurio and K. Zdepski

It’s well known that the UMass Amherst Libraries provide comprehensive support for the teaching and research of UMass students, faculty, and staff. It’s also no secret that the Libraries invest in high-caliber physical and electronic collections and resources like databases that enable our community to access materials they need to produce the scholarship for which UMass is known.

Still, try as we might, we can’t own everything our scholars want to use in their research. This is where our Interlibrary Loan (ILL) unit steps in to help. This team of six dedicated library workers, led by K. Zdepski, Resource Sharing Librarian (they/them), regularly tap into a worldwide network of libraries to find articles, chapters, and entire books both physical and digital needed by UMass patrons, no matter what language they’re in or how obscure they are. “Interlibrary loan is an incredible bridge to access. While open access options are growing, a lot of crucial information is still locked behind paywalls or only available in print or on microform. Even open access materials can be difficult to locate. All of us in ILL love being able to connect patrons to materials they need, especially things that seemed impossible at first,” says K.

In addition to supporting faculty and student research, ILL also has a direct positive impact on student success by making it possible for our students to access what they need from a text without needing to purchase the entire book. Given the ever-increasing cost of textbooks, being able to request a chapter or two and have them delivered electronically is a game-changer.

The ILL staff at the Libraries are justifiably proud of the work they do to connect our students and faculty with the right materials, and they take the phrase “go the extra mile” pretty literally, obtaining materials from all over the world if needed. As a research university with a global footprint, UMass community members often require materials drawn from outside the United States and published in myriad languages. In some ways, our ILL staff are a combination of detective and diplomat. For example, Deborah Place, our borrowing specialist, often enlists the help of Sharon Domier, East Asian Studies Librarian, to make sure that requests sent to Japan and Korea are done so with sensitivity towards local customs and expectations. And UMass doesn’t only borrow from other libraries; we also reciprocate with our peers worldwide by responding to their requests for materials not found in their own collections.

The ILL staff’s dedication to their work really paid off during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, when researchers found themselves unable to simply grab books off the shelf. The memory of that time is still fresh for K. “In the first weeks of shutdown, we worked with Circulation staff to mail many items stranded on library hold shelves to the homes of patrons who still needed them. We had to get creative with how we handled requests, borrowing or working with Acquisitions to purchase
e-books wherever we could, and referring patrons to subject specialist librarians for help with alternatives when we couldn’t get hold of what they needed due to library closures. We also expanded our Library Express program to mail materials from both our libraries and other libraries on request, and I’m glad to say that expansion is here to stay – we now mail just about anything to anyone off campus and within the United States.”

“Since my arrival at the university in 2000, the university’s Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery has fulfilled a steady stream of source requests, always promptly and cordially. Many of my publications include a wholehearted footnote of gratitude, which, if convention allowed, would certainly be better placed in the main text.” —Aviva Ben-Ur, PhD, Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies

UMass Amherst students, faculty, and staff who want to borrow books or other materials for recreation can make use of ILL, too. “The first version of the Interlibrary Loan Code for the United States discouraged borrowing fiction or anything for a ‘trivial’ purpose. Today, that’s gone from the Code, and we encourage patrons to use interlibrary loan for enjoyment as well as research. While we struggle to supply some materials that are locked to libraries, such as kindle-only e-books or Netflix exclusive video, we don’t scrutinize or judge the merit of any request.” This opens up a world of access to materials that can enrich the lives of students, faculty, and staff and deepen their sense of wellbeing.

Even though the Interlibrary Loan staff may have historically had a small public presence, it’s abundantly clear that the tremendous amount of work they do has a huge effect on the teaching, learning, and scholarship being produced at UMass and even worldwide.

“The Interlibrary Loan system and the people who staff it are amazing. Last summer, I created an ILL loan request through my UMass Library account late on a weekend evening and it was filled almost immediately with a book chapter scanned by The Chinese University of Hong Kong. The request apparently landed there during the work day on account of the time difference. The reach of the network and the speed at which it operates are astonishing and inspiring. While this has long been true, at a moment when the commercial search engines that paint themselves as synonymous with access to information are revealing themselves to be distressingly unreliable, this was a beautiful reminder of how essential and performant our library infrastructures are.” —Joshua Braun, PhD, Associate Professor of Journalism