The New Interlibrary Loan

From Library Babel Fish, January 26, 2015

Quite a few years ago, a college president said to us, not entirely in jest, that he couldn’t see why the library needed all that money when we had interlibrary loan. Why not just order whatever students and faculty needed from other libraries? We had to explain that there was a legal agreement in place that prevented us from sponging off other libraries. Sharing is great, and we couldn’t possibly meet the needs of our students or faculty without it, but it only works so long as every participating library was willing to pitch in. We had to have a collection that we could share if we wanted to borrow. We all had to be prepared to do our part.

That has worked pretty well. How will we’ll continue to share in the future? There are two roads ahead of us, one well-traveled and familiar but studded with tolls, the other open but not paved yet and sometimes hard to see as we hack our way forward.

Right now, academic libraries all spend a large part of our budgets on ephemeral licensed materials which in many cases we cannot legally share among libraries. We can still get our students and faculty what they want, kind of like interlibrary loan, but we have to pay publishers by annual subscription or by the piece and for the most part we don’t have any assets to show for the money we’ve spent. If we have a bad year, large chunks of the library can vanish.

Smaller bits are lost all the time. Images disappear from books because permissions weren’t secured. Books and journals are taken off the virtual shelf that you subscribe to because a publisher pulled out of the deal. Of course, new things show up, too – things we don’t particularly want, but which we have to pay for anyway. “Good news! We just acquired 300 new journals! Here’s your recalculated bill. It’s due Wednesday.” This is a familiar road, but the tolls are steep and it’s not taking us where want to go.

The road less traveled, the one we’re still hacking out of the unknown, could put our collective funding toward a system that enables more sharing than we have ever had, but for it to work, we’ll each need to contribute. “Just build it into the grant” won’t work, because for many disciplines there are no grants. This is not going to be an easy sell. The idea that we might spend money on a project that might benefit others – even institutions that compete with us for students or star faculty or funding? That’s crazy talk!

But we couldn’t have had the interlibrary loan system that has served us for decades if libraries hadn’t agreed to share the costs. A school like mine with a relatively small budget can’t sit back and hope someone else will fund open access to scholarship any more than we can rely entirely on the kindness of interlibrary loan. We’ll have to put our money into things like Knowledge Unlatched or the Open Access Network or the University of California Press’s new Luminos project, or the Open Library of Humanities, or collaborative explorations like the Lever Initiative – or new ideas that haven’t surfaced yet. Whatever it is, we have to do it together.

Somehow we’re going to have to persuade those who hold the purse strings that the only way we’ll all get adequate access to knowledge is if we put our institution’s money into projects that benefit others through organized and equitable sharing – by all of us doing our part. Just like with interlibrary loan, only more so.