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University Libraries

‘The Books Will Be Back’

By Chris Tangeman

We are living in a digital age. At the library, our users want information — and they want it now. They want that article as a PDF right now. They want that chapter as a PDF right now. And they want to access that book electronically right now. 

Much of the time, these wants and needs can be accommodated through our subscription databases. When we don’t have what they need through our e-resources, they often send a request using ILLiad, our interlibrary loan request platform.

Even though the majority of articles and chapters we retrieve through interlibrary loan for our students, faculty and staff now come to us from the electronic holdings of other libraries, the print materials still play a large part — a fact that has been well-emphasized amid the COVID-19-related library closures.

Access and speed have changed … and so have expectations

When I first began working with interlibrary loan about seven years ago, we still received the vast majority of articles that ILL procured via a scan from another library’s print journal collection, which meant that we often had to wait to access the newest articles. 

Now, in 2020, we regularly receive — and fulfill — requests for articles that were published last week or even have not yet been published in print. It is not out of the question to get a request for a chapter from a book that is set to be printed in the following few months. 

There are certainly exceptions, but typically, if there is a digital version of something out there, we can probably access it. 

My, how the world has changed:

  • 1920s and ’30s: The Jazz Age takes the Americas and Europe by storm.
  • 1967-69: Galt MacDermot and The 5th Dimension announce the dawning of The Age of Aquarius.
  • 1976: British folk-rocker Al Stewart proclaims the Year of the Cat.
  • 1985: Madonna’s hit single “Material Girl” emphasizes that we are, in that decade, living in a material world.
  • 1989: Sir Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web and uploads the first pictures of cute kittens.
  • 1995-99: Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and Google start their (search) engines.
  • 1998: Amazon starts selling things besides books online.
  • 2009: The Black Eyed Peas have two of the top four songs on the Billboard charts with “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling.” They have nothing to do with this blog post, but they’re good songs for a workout.
  • 2013: UD library users start to ask more and more for articles from online journals.
  • 10:05 a.m.: A UD doctoral candidate receives an article PDF in their email 33 minutes after they requested it.

Last scanner standing?

Almost all academic and public libraries in this country (and beyond) had to close their buildings, and most are only offering what services they can deliver remotely. The vast majority of academic libraries still providing ILL services in this country (which is not even close to all of them) are doing so by providing what they can from their digital collections. They are not entering their buildings. At all. UD’s ILL staff is one of a very small number entering their libraries to scan articles and chapters from their print collections.

And there is quite a need for it. While it might seem odd these days, not all journals and certainly not all books are digitized. If you are researching a current topic or are on the cutting edge of a scientific field, you might still fare well with access to online journals only. But for many, especially if you’re in certain humanities fields, your research might be hitting a brick wall right now. Whether you’re a member of the history faculty who is working on a historiography, or a religious studies doctoral student trying to finish the last stages of research for your dissertation defense or an education undergrad who is trying to research how educators taught in the 1960s, you might be struggling to find access to all of those citations you selected as necessary to your research.

‘Book nerds of the world (i.e., me), rejoice!’

Some of these things are just too unique to obtain, even for ILL. But many of them — which normally can be obtained pretty easily through ILL — are only available in print, and when almost every library in the country is closed, that makes for a higher percentage of ILL cancellations. 

And my, have there been cancellations. We have been happy with our success rate, given all of the restrictions, but we have been reminded that many of our researchers still need access to those older, print-only materials. Print is not dead! Book nerds of the world (i.e., me), rejoice!

We have been able to obtain a few full, born-digital ebooks, plus a few older books that are out of copyright that have been digitized through services like Google Books and HathiTrust. And we have received many chapters via normal ILL “article” requests from other libraries’ ebook collections. But there have also been many requests for books or chapters that fall into that digital dead zone — especially books that were published in the 1980s and ’90s. They are far too young to be out of copyright, but they are often too old (it pains me to use that adjective for the 1990s!) to have been purchased by libraries as ebooks. Our most commonly used reason for canceling ILL requests these past few months has been that the print resource simply can’t be accessed right now.

But please, ILL users, do not lose heart! Libraries are slowly beginning to work toward reopening. OhioLINK has long been in discussions and preparations for the massive task of getting that lending behemoth back into running order (no small task, I assure you). And soon, library staff and student workers will be zipping around again, scanning and shipping print materials to the delight of researchers everywhere.

The books will be back. They’re a little dusty, but soon they will be on their way to the researchers who need them. Be safe! And, for now, please pray for all those library workers who will soon be reentering their buildings for the first time in months and face thousands upon thousands of returned books that need to be processed, quarantined and sent back to their rightful owners and proper shelves. 

— Christopher Tangeman is an interlibrary loan borrowing specialist in the University Libraries. In ILL circles, he’s known as “a man who can get things.”

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