In 1995, I saw the future, and it was interlibrary loan. I’ve never been precognizant, but anyone could see the trends: materials budgets were being sliced a little more each year, the Worldwide Web (as we quaintly called it then) was taking off, and databases were escaping from CD-ROM towers like so many Rapunzels. It was clear that patrons would find more citations, would want more articles, and would not find them on the shelves of their underfunded academic library. Interlibrary loan, a specialty boutique for esoteric books and so-specific citations, would have to become a mega-mall. So I took the ILL courses through Solinet, became certified, and soon found myself sitting at an OCLC dumb terminal, typing in info from the twenty or thirty paper ILL forms my patrons gave me each day.
I’m still an ILL librarian, but everything else has changed. Patrons zing digital requests to my attention directly from databases as they search. My library uses ILLiad to manage all these requests, so the requests in essence go from one online database to another. ILL has more warm bodies and budget lines devoted to it than ever before. When I turn on my computer in the morning to see how many dozens or hundreds of ILL requests are waiting, I know I was right about the future.
That was then, this is now – and the future comes a lot faster than it used to. The trends are not as easy to read, but I’m ready to make another prediction: ILL will once again be a boutique department in the academic library, a service for the occasional patron who needs rarified material. Why do I believe this? There are three factors fueling my prognostication.
The first is the increasing amount of full-text available online. An overwhelming amount of my library’s budget (rightly) goes to database subscriptions that include the full text of some or all items indexed. While I knew back in the 1990s that people would be able to find more things more easily, I didn’t foresee that publishers would license so much content. For a fee, entire libraries of books are available online. How cool is that for your distance ed students? Not only is there no need for ILL, there’s no need for a visit to the physical library.
The second factor is the decreasing quality of bibliographic search skills. I’m certainly not denigrating library instruction – standing at the front of a darkened room full of blank-faced freshman, laser pointer in hand, is not a job for the faint. It’s the ease of searching that is at fault. Librarians know from our own research that our users think they’re good searchers because they find stuff. If Jane Student can type in a handful of words in any given search engine and, in the first page of results, get those five articles that her professor requires, she’s just marked something else off her to-do list. Those five articles are probably not the best, or peer-reviewed, or exactly on-topic, but she is confident in her net-searching skills. Why would she take the time to look deeper?
The last and most important reason ILL will dwindle is the human response to our swift-moving digital highway. Want to know what other people think about the outcome of your favorite dancing show? Seconds after it ends, you can take your pick of comments on Twitter, Facebook, or websites devoted to the program. Want to know who scored the winning run of a 1978 game, or the capital of Peru, or the location of the closest Thai restaurant? The answer is at hand, twenty-four hours a day, anywhere you have wireless access. So when Jamal Student is looking for the articles he needs for his paper, he won’t wait two days for an article or – horrors! – an entire week for a book. We’ve become conditioned to the immediate, and ILL is not instantaneous.
The nature of interlibrary loan works against its continuing prominence in the library. The patron has to identify the absence of something she needs, very difficult in an environment that floods you with information. The patron has to overcome her resistance to adding more to this burdensome glut of data. The patron has to then be patient. And before all of this, the patron has to think of the library as the place to find her information.
I could, of course, be as wrong about the future as a 1950s science fiction movie. Lots of things are in play, after all. Maybe the courts will blindside everyone with some new interpretation of copyright that will force patrons to turn to original source material. ILL’s fifteen minutes of fame might go on if publishers stop leasing content. I think they need the revenue stream too badly, but perhaps it could happen. Or, indexing/abstracting databases might become as easy to search as Google, causing patrons to turn to them in droves to find quality material. There are surely factors that I haven’t considered that could keep interlibrary loan in the main channel instead of easing into the quiet backwater of bygone years.
Let me and everyone know if you agree or disagree, seconds after you finish reading this, by posting to the ‘ILL’s 15 minutes is up’ thread on the TLA Forum site http://www.tnla.org/forum.cfm