I have some thoughts about ILL and document supply

During the last few weeks I’ve been helping out the Document Delivery (DocDel) team at work with some of their workload, chiefly processing other libraries’ physical items in and out, plus a bit of journal article delivery from our collections to other libraries. I am an almost complete newcomer to the inter-library loan and document supply side of the library business, and it’s been very interesting to see how the sausage gets made, so to speak.

Knowing the Share It! Resource Sharing Futures conference is coming up in a month’s time; noting that all the speakers are managers rather than coalface staff; and wondering if a newcomer’s experience of resource sharing work might be valuable, I decided to jot down my experiences of working in DocDel for the first time.

As always, these views are entirely my own and not those of my employer (but hey, if you wanna send me to #shareit2018 I won’t say no).

  • Resource sharing is surprisingly labour-intensive. I was astonished to find out just how much human intervention goes into an ILL request. When someone lodges a request through the online portal, or gives up and emails, or can’t wait until yesterday and calls up directly, that request is handled by at least three different people:

1) branch staffer at lending library receives book request, confirms book is present, retrieves book, applies book strap, posts book, tells ILL system this has been done
2) docdel staffer at receiving library receives book, applies second book strap with a barcode, writes down patron details on bookmark for easy reference, pops bookmark in book, sends book to pickup branch, tells ILL system this has been done
3) branch staffer at receiving library uses bookmark to locate book on hold shelf, checks out book to patron

And that’s if everything works properly. None of the above is particularly difficult work, but there are a lot of moving parts, and a lot to get right. It’s hard to automate attaching a barcode strap to a book, but we also have to include a little paper note reminding circ staff to change the item’s due date, and I despair every time I reach for a paperclip.

Within consortia using the same ILS, internal resource sharing has a lot less overhead. The BONUS+ consortium, comprising Australian and New Zealand university libraries running an Innovative system (Millennium or Sierra), allows patrons to request items from participating libraries without needing the involvement of document supply staff. The kicker is that you can use the lending library’s barcode without having to attach a new one, because all the ILSs can talk to each other. It’s brilliant! It also shifts a fair bit of the resource sharing workload from DocDel to branch library staff, who incorporate it into their usual circ workflows.

  • Human labour is often compensating for poor metadata and system design. In any given day, I routinely deny over 80% of article requests. It’s not because I get a kick out of saying no, but rather that the system we use, which hooks into the Libraries Australia Document Delivery network, thinks our collection includes items it doesn’t. From what I can tell, it matches a request to a holding library using a title, author, ISBN, ISSN, or a combination of these. It doesn’t appear to consider our actual holdings of a journal (i.e. the span of years or issues we have) or whether our licensing agreements permit supply of electronic items.

Having said that, our electronic journals have their holdings data recorded in an 856 $z field. Having this data in free text rather than fixed or coded fields surely makes it far harder for an ILL system to figure out what we actually hold. The licensing information is not recorded in a MARC format, is almost certainly inaccessible to the ILL system, and would differ hugely between libraries. Consequently I waste large amounts of time figuring out that no, we can’t actually supply items after all. It would be far better—not to mention faster—for all involved if the system knew not to ask us in the first place.

My colleagues in DocDel work very hard, but I can’t help but feel a lot of their labour is wasted. Surely we can do better?

  • Resource sharing is interesting and engaging work. While I wish I didn’t have to think so hard about whether or not we can supply an article, there’s still a lot of problem-solving in document supply, especially for rare and unusual materials. Most of that work is handled by the DocDel team leader, who understandably hasn’t let me anywhere near it yet. People ask for all sorts of weird stuff—theses, manuscripts, books that no library in Australia has, increasingly esoteric foreign-language films… if nothing else, it’s a great insight into certain academics’ current research interests. I can almost guess who has requested certain items just by looking at them!
  • For undergraduates, ILL and document supply are irrelevant. For higher degree students and staff, they’re a lifesaver. I never used ILL as an undergrad, chiefly because they were gonna charge me for it, and I was too broke for that. Ten years and two degrees later, I’m far more aware of the resources beyond my library’s walls, but I’m not sure all our patrons are. If users consider the first page of discovery layer search results to be the sum total of a library’s resource provision—and let’s be honest, most of them do—what incentive do they have to look elsewhere, or ask a librarian for help, or stumble upon that wondrous part of the library website titled ‘Document Supply’? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most of our fervent ILL users discovered the service by accident. It’s usually followed by a ‘Where has this been all my life?!’ moment. It’s been right here, the whole time, but we could do with some more advertising. Also a better funnel for disappointed catalogue users.
  • There will always be a need for resource sharing services. In an age of open-access, preprint servers and Sci-Hub, where lots of people go out of their way to make their work (and others’) available online for free, plenty of people are questioning the need for library resource sharing services at all. As I see it, there are two main problems: people don’t know resource sharing exists; and when they do know, they often aren’t prepared to wait. Document supply is not a quick process—quite apart from being at the mercy of Australia Post, the use of substandard ILL systems and reliance on human labour means stuff just takes a while. That might work for document supply staff, but it doesn’t work for users.

No matter how often we might hear it, we will never have everything available for free on the internet. As long as there are paywalls, print books and rare items, there will be a need for resource sharing. But our systems and processes must improve. Placing a request and waiting for an item has a decidedly old-fashioned sheen to it. Like I said, I am new to this work, and I don’t profess to have any of the answers. But I sure wouldn’t mind trying to come up with some.

There will be no GLAM 3017, because we will all be dead

I try not to think about where humanity might be in a thousand years. Based on our current trajectory, the most likely answer is ‘extinct’. Our current rate of consumption and pollution is not sustainable for anywhere near that length of time. When resources run out, there will inevitably be fierce wars over what little is left. Civilisation will end one of two ways: with a bang, or a whimper.

When we are all gone, we will leave behind an unfathomable amount of stuff. Priceless treasures representing the pinnacle of humanity, through personal possessions and records of ordinary people, to mountains of rubbish and items of no assigned value. All of this stuff will begin to degrade. Bespoke climate-controlled environments will no longer protect precious materials; our natural environment will likely not be conducive to long-term preservation, either. It is inevitable great works will be lost.

I’ve had Abby Smith Rumsey’s When We Are No More on my to-read pile for several months. I won’t get it read anytime soon, sadly, but her book touches on similar themes. Rumsey appears more optimistic than me; her book explores how people a thousand years from now will remember the early 21st century. I can’t help but admire her belief that humanity will exist at all.

This is a pessimistic worldview, to be sure. After all, modern capitalism is predicated on people buying stuff, which is in turn predicated on the constant production of stuff. Increasingly this ‘stuff’ is made from non-renewable materials, and sooner or later those materials will run out. Capitalism presents no incentive to preserve our scarce resources, because if a resource remains in the ground then less (or no) money can be made from it. The only real hope of changing this state of affairs lies in revolution, and that won’t be popular.

If, by some miracle, homo sapiens survives to 3017, it will not be a pleasant world. With the exhaustion of mineral resources will come a need to recycle or perish. If our choice becomes book-burning or starvation (we’ve all seen that scene in The Day After Tomorrow, right?), I doubt many would pick the latter. Technology will not save us. Our electronic memory will be irretrievable, our physical memory decayed if not destroyed. Perhaps our surviving collective descendants will despair at our modern habits of storing vast amounts of information on fragile pieces of metal and plastic, which require significant infrastructure to be accessed and read. A book (which, to be fair, we are also producing plenty of) requires nothing but a pair of functioning eyeballs.

I’d really like to believe that our species will survive, but nothing so far has convinced me. Knowledge and memory—and the externalisation thereof—are uniquely human traits. Without people to inhabit library buildings, without people to read books, without people to create and disseminate knowledge… our planet will be truly devoid.

Then again, we live in a time of information abundance, and look where it’s gotten us. Perhaps we’re reaping what we sow.