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Meeting the Need: Interlibrary Loan Increases Digitizing Materials While Physical Library Spaces are Closed

May 4, 2020

The onset of COVID-19 created obstacles for institutions across the country, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The requesting process of physical books at the UW-Madison Libraries – both borrowing and lending – came to a halt in early March as health and safety considerations became paramount. Books could no longer be shared, yet remained essential for instruction. This problem required libraries to adapt – quickly.

Overnight, the UW-Madison Libraries’ Interlibrary Loan and Resource Sharing unit’s relatively behind-the-scenes services were thrust into the foreground as digital article and book chapter requests from patrons and other libraries are pouring in.

“The biggest challenge is trying to figure out how to get scans from physical materials to patrons when there is virtually no staff at campus libraries, no way to move books from campus libraries to Memorial Library (where we’re doing the digitizing), and many other university libraries around the country are closed,” explains Rachel Watters, Director of Resource Sharing at UW-Madison Libraries. “To give some perspective, the Libraries moved around 28,000 books between campus libraries and other institutions in the spring semester of 2019.”

Since copyright law prevents digitization of entire books, library staff had to develop creative, innovative solutions, virtually overnight.  

The staff depends typically on student employees to pull and scan articles and books. With much of the staff working remotely and students no longer on campus, only a skeleton crew in the physical library is now able to retrieve and scan the materials. For the few remaining individuals in the library, they continue to face a staggering workload.

But count on librarians to be tenacious, persistent, and thorough. These behind-the-scene heroes are excellent at finding creative solutions to meet the needs of our users. The standard 50-page scanning limit was lifted to accommodate more requests. Additional scanners were set up (appropriately distanced from each other) to increase scanning capacity, and Library staff from other departments volunteered to help the ILL department. This work continues at a rapid pace while maintaining specific health safety protocols, including social distancing and regular breaks for hand-washing and sanitizing of workstations.

ILL has always been a vital library service, but given the recent events, it has become crucial. Joy Pohlman, Head of the Interlibrary Loan department, insists, “Despite all the challenges, we are still deeply committed to getting patrons what they need as quickly as possible.”

They may not be familiar with glory, but they certainly have the guts. If you need help getting resources, learn how to request material on the Libraries website.