John Klima previously worked at Asimov’s, Analog, and Tor Books before returning to school to earn his Master’s in Library and Information Science. He now works full time as a librarian. When he is not conquering the world of indexing, John edits and publishes the Hugo Award-winning genre zine Electric Velocipede. The magazine has is also a four-time nominee for the World Fantasy Award. In 2007 Klima edited an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories based on spelling-bee winning words called Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories. In 2011, Klima edited an anthology of retellings of fairytales for Night Shade Books titled Happily Ever After. He and his family live in the Midwest. You can follow him on Twitter @EV_Mag.
Doing Research at the Library, Part II
Last time I talked about how you could walk into your local library and get all sorts of great research help for your writing. We went over material that the library has on its shelves–both to use in library and take home–as well as material available via databases and other electronic media. There’s also the helpful librarian who has been how to do searching that can help you find material. Their Google Fu is strong, use them.
But what happens when the material you want–let’s be honest, the material you need–isn’t available at your local public library but at a different institution altogether? Or worse yet, what if that material is in (cue ominous music)…special collections?
First, let’s talk about interlibrary loan (ILL). ILL is what your library will use to borrow material from another library. But what does that mean? Let’s use my library as an example. The Waukesha Public Library (WPL) is part of the Waukesha County Federated Library System (WCFLS) which includes the following communities: Big Bend, Brookfield, Butler, Delafield, Eagle, Elm Grove, Hartland, Mukwonago, Muskego, New Berlin, Oconomowoc, Pewaukee, Sussex-Lisbon, Town Hall-Merton (North Lake, WI), and Waukesha of course.
If you’re a patron of one of those libraries (i.e., any resident of Waukesha county) and what you’re looking for is held by any of those fifteen libraries, you can just place a hold on it in the online catalog and it will be sent over to your library (free of charge) for you to check out as if it was part of your library’s collection. Your library might also be a part of a larger library system; it might not. If it is, you likely have a similar system in place. One of my previous libraries was part of the Prairie Area Library System (PALS) which was almost 400 libraries strong and you could get material from any of those libraries.
But again, let’s return to the question of what to do when what you want isn’t available through local resources. The first trick is determining what you need in the first place. It may seem obvious, but your local library’s catalog will only list the books/materials that they have. How would you even know about something they didn’t have? First, many states have a searchable shared catalog of all or most of the libraries in the state. A few examples include Wisconsin’s WISCAT or Ohio’s Ohio Libraries Share More. Your librarian will know if your state has a shared catalog, or you can search for your state’s State Library (typically located in the state capital) and among their resources will be a shared state catalog if one exists. Searching these catalogs is very similar to searching your local catalog, although they can be more hit or miss and you might be better off going into an advanced search right away.
Again, your local librarian will be versed in searching these catalogs and can help you use them. After you get some instruction on how to use the state catalog, you should be able to search from home and know whether you need to request material (more to come).
If your state doesn’t have a shared catalog, or your searching in the state catalog nets you zero results, you can go and search World Cat the online catalog for the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC; formerly the Ohio College Library Center). World Cat lists the collections (mostly) of its 72,000 member libraries. The catalog is approaching two billion items in its holdings. There are libraries from 170 different countries in OCLC.
Sounds awesome, right? Well, yes and no.
First, the bad news. With 72,000 members, that’s the largest single library organization in the world. The United States has roughly 121,000 libraries alone. Many libraries who are part of OCLC do not list their collection in World Cat. There are often multiple records for the same material (not even multiple records for different editions which is frustrating enough, but multiple records for the same editions because of the way that the different libraries added the material into their catalog). It can be extremely frustrating searching in World Cat as you run into dead ends and confusing records. Of course, your local librarian can help and there are OCLC librarians who can help, too.
Now, the good news. Despite thousands and thousands of libraries not being a part of OCLC/World Cat, there is still a TON of stuff in the catalog. The membership tends to be large academic institutions who historically have large, and thorough, collections. Where your local public library may not have much in its collection as far as textbooks go, academic libraries are loaded with them. Many of these libraries also have obscure and unusual material. World Cat might be exactly what you need to find a copy of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor from 1861 or a collection of letters from the Revolutionary War.
How Interlibrary Loan Works
I’m sure you’re still wondering how you go about getting this material from wherever it’s located to your library, right? We’re finally getting on to what ILL is and how to use it. You can see the policies and procedures on how my library handles ILL here, but I’ll summarize them here. Please note, your library will have its own policies and procedures regarding ILL, but in general this will be the process you’ll go through.
First, you’ll place a request with a librarian, which can be done in person, over the phone, or via email. You can request books and photocopies of articles (as long as you provide the specifics) without much concern. Audiovisual material (AV) such as audio and video cassettes, DVDs, CDs, and so on can be requested but many institutions don’t lend them as they don’t travel well. Many libraries use a six to twelve month embargo on ILL, meaning that material added to the library’s collection won’t go out through ILL until six months to a year have passed. Reference material and special collections (still to come) won’t be sent via ILL (there are rare exceptions, to come).
By WI state law, ILL fees and costs cannot be passed on to the patron. That means, if the lending library charges your local library $12 for something via ILL, your library should not charge you anything in return. That said, you may find your library charges a nominal $1 fee if they are able to fill your request. It’s up to you whether you want to fight your library on this (understanding you may not live in WI and your state may have different laws). Know that if you are a pain to the library staff, it will not help you in the long run.
Material will be sent to your local library, and you must return it to that library no matter what you can normally do with library material. So, if you can normally check out a book at any library in the county and consequently return it to any library in the county, that does NOT apply for ILL. Your check-out period for an ILL (the amount of time you get to have the book) will likely be different than the typical check-out period. Most likely you will not be allowed to renew your ILL checkout, so make sure you get what you want while you have the book. And don’t try to go around your local library by contacting the lending library directly to ask for a renewal or loan extension. Then you’ll be pissing off two libraries. And yes, both libraries understand how frustrating it is to not have the material as long as you need it.
Your best option in this case is to be honest with your library. Return the material so that it can be sent back to its owning library, and let your library know that you weren’t able to finish with the material and that you want to re-request it. You can request your library purchase the material, but there could be very good reasons–such as budget or the material falls outside of the scope of the library’s collection–why your library doesn’t own it already.
What About Special Collections?
Occasionally, even ILL can’t get your material. What you want is in another library’s special collections. This can one of several things, but typically it consists of material that is either rare or fragile and the risk of sending it through the mail is too great. This can often cause your research to stop dead in its tracks.
Under rare circumstances, special collections material does get sent out. However, that tends to be material that is in good shape, not too rare, and gets sent under the condition that it does not leave the borrowing library. Sometimes you even need to view this material under the supervision of a librarian. If you’re lucky enough that something from special collections gets sent to you don’t complain if you have to look at it while a librarian sits next to you. It’s a small price to pay compared to having to travel to another state or country.
If the material can’t leave its home institution, then the only option is to travel to that library if you want to see it. That can be fine if you live near a large public institution like the UW-Madison or Texas University at Austin or UCLA. But the material you want might not be at one of those places. It might be at a private school like Princeton or Harvard where you wouldn’t have access unless you’re a current student or alumnus.
That leaves you with two options: take a trip and go to the library in person or hire someone to research the material for you. Neither one will be cheap, and I know which one I’d prefer. It could be that you’re already traveling near the holding library and you could extend your trip to include the research (all part of tax deductions, right?). It could be that the holding library is a place you’ve wanted to visit anyway and you bite the bullet and make the trip. You could even consider doing some sort of crowd-sourced funding to help out (where those people get free autographed copies of the book or something) but I would think long and hard about the necessity of the research before you went and invested a lot of money into it.
Depending on what you need, you can always try searching through places like Project Gutenberg or Google Books if the material in question is in the public domain (published before 1926). You might find that there’s an electronic copy of the book that you can download and have forever. Project Gutenberg has about 36,000 books in its collection and Google states that it has more than a million public domain titles in its collection. Even with that much material available, don’t be surprised if what you want is not available.