Sharing the Importance of ILL

December 21, 2017

Almost exactly fifty years ago, in the fall of 1967, I washed up on the campus of the University of Wisconsin—Madison as a graduate student in African history.  I had spent the previous eight years well outside academia and was hating it.  One of the reasons for this dissatisfaction was my inability to secure a broad range of materials from the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.  I was familiar with TPL largely because I had worked there from 1953 to 1956 as a high-school and college student. A fine WPA-funded library, it no doubt served its core clientele—but me, not so much.

No surprise then that the very first place on campus I scoped out was Memorial Library, whose formidable bulk was less formidable than it was to become the during twenty years, but still leap years better than TPL.  The resources of Memorial’s—and the Madison campus’ numerous specialized libraries—dwarfed those of TPL. Moreover, Memorial’s cavernous stacks were more redolent of the stereotypical library, with aisle after endless aisle of choc-a-bloc with rows of books with plenty of dust on them, virtually no natural lighting, execrable study carrels, and mediocre ventilation.  I loved it all and managed to visit there almost every weekday.  At the time, entry to the stacks was by way of a single portal and available only to graduate students, allowing us to feel ever so slightly superior to the rest of the student population, who were forced to turn in written requests for all materials in Memorial’s stacks.

My first visitation was to ILL, which at the time was housed in quite a small office attached to the General Reference Department.  I was immediately made to feel at home by the librarian and a half assigned to ordering materials, mostly for in-house use.  Several years later the General Reference Department moved to newer and larger quarters and I tagged along. My first and lasting impression was the empathetic interest shown by the ILL staff.  They taught users how to make best use of such finding tools at the Pre-1956 Imprints, through which ILL patrons became indoctrinated on bibliographic usages just in time for them all to change. . .

At first requests were limited to four per week and I was soon up to speed.  Given the numbers of real and potential users, this must have been a heavy load for the librarian and the student helpers.  It was also fairly difficult to order materials since users were requested to provide a citation, preferably from some canonical index or another, to ensure that the item requested did actually exist and in findable shape (corporate entries, pseudonyms, particular editions, and the like).  Users tended to learn from their mistakes!

I estimate that, in the fifty years since those early days of learning (library) right from (library) wrong, I have ordered (note present-perfect ending) more than ten thousand items through ILL, a number facilitated by the removal of the four-per-week limitations not so long after I arrived.  While these normally related to my research, there were some bonus opportunities as well.  As a fan of the British golden-age mystery genre, I eventually read most of the UW had in this respect—and it has one of the better collections of the country, since the selectors of modern fiction during my incumbency also had the habit. At some point I learned about a British effort to preserve these hundreds and hundreds—and hundreds—of titles.  Named the Metropolitan Joint Fiction Reserve, it divided these materials alphabetically and distributed them among the numerous libraries in and around London. At my request, ILL checked to see whether these titles could be borrowed.  Mirabile dictu, the answer was—yes, and for several years we had a procedure in place by which I would order five to ten titles at a time and return them en gros, paying the postage both ways.  What a deal!  Even though ILL was not out of pocket monetarily, its willingness to act as legitimizing broker made it all possible. I am eternally grateful not only for doing this, but for being willing to do it.

In the course of research, it is sometimes expedient to borrow an item for no loftier purpose than to check the accuracy of a citation/quotation or inclusive page numbers.  Since this might require only a few moments to do, it might well be regarded as an unnecessarily expensive luxury—an ergonomic disaster if you will—but if such a feeling exists at any of the UW ILL departments, this feeling had never been imparted to me

Visiting other research libraries here and abroad, I noticed that many of them have closed doors with slits in them or boxes positioned near them, thereby interdicting any possibly useful give-and-take.  This was true at Memorial Library only a briefish period.  For most of my time there, ILL was in its own office, a counter-like arrangement that one merely needed to walk up to and start conversing.  Even now, although relegated to the basement, the doors are open for anyone willing to walk through them.

For my part, I (hope) I have never failed to acknowledge my appreciation in books and other places.  My experience has been that librarians are generally forgotten at thank-you time.  Maybe sometimes this is warranted.  Or perhaps these authors have simply not availed themselves of the multitudinous universe of resources—much to their disadvantage, I would think.

Of course, over the last half-century, ILL has transformed itself—or been transformed—at least as much as other library functions.  It is a far cry from the days of the handwritten order forms to speed-of-light delivery via the internet.  And the onset of new bibliographic databases makes it simplicity itself to find more and more about more and more.  But, in my experience anyway, the commitment of librarians to provide the best possible service, whatever the environment, remains undiminished.

In the IT environment of today, I often receive copies of articles within minutes (sic) of placing the order—not much longer that it take me to walk from my office to the appropriate stack shelves if it were there. Not only is everything faster, but the hit-rate continues to increase.  Fifty years ago, perhaps one-half of my orders were unsuccessful, whether due defective matter on the order, a failure locate a willing lender, or a number of other vicissitudes.  It has been a long time since that was true.

I probably won’t be ordering much through ILL any more—although four items arrived only last week—but I continue to remain grateful for the roughly 10,000 times ILL and I have interacted. The benefit balance is very much on my side.

David Henige

University of Wisconsin—Madison