Sunday, January 24, 2010

52 Weeks to Better Genealogy: Interlibrary Loan

Week 4: Learn about your local public library’s inter-library loan (ILL) policy. Pick a genealogy-related book that you want to read that is not in your library’s collection. Ask the librarian how to request the book from another library. Find the different library systems from which you can request books through your own library, as this can dramatically increase the number of genealogy books to which you have access. If you have a genealogy blog, write about your experience with requesting items through your library’s ILL service.

Let me start by saying I LOVE ILL. I use it all the time. While my local public library offers interlibrary loan service, I usually use the university library where I work, for convenience. I've requested - and received - numerous items of all types since I started working there 3.5 years ago.

However, I did not have very good luck requesting a genealogy-related book, and here, in a nutshell, is why: Many genealogy books are in non-circulating collections, often due to their rarity. That means that if the item must be used on-site by the library's local patrons, they're not very likely to send it out on an interlibrary loan.

Case in point: Back in mid-October, I requested The descendants of John Moore of Somerset County, Maryland through interlibrary loan. Libraries use WorldCat (a more sophisticated subscription version of the public site) to find what other libraries have requested items. As you can see when you click the book's link, at least 17 libraries record holdings of this title. (Actually, at least 22 libraries have the book according to the subscription WorldCat). And of course, there may be many other small libaries out there that aren't members of OCLC and won't show up in WorldCat.

Checking the first three libraries in the WorldCat record (also the closest to my home), one can see that the book is listed as "no checkout," "non-circulating," and "LIB[rary] USE ONLY." This was apparently the case with all the libraries contacted by our interlibrary loan department. After numerous inquiries to the other libraries over a month and a half, they told me they would not be able to fill my request. Fortunately, I did not need this book that badly - my cross-country sister-in-law has a copy and I can borrow hers.

So, I wanted to caution readers that while ILL is a wonderful service, it doesn't always mean you will be able to use those rare sources you want to use at your own home. Sometimes a library will lend out its materials, but only for use within the borrowing library.

If you know pretty specifically what information you want from the book and can specify page numbers or chapters, most libraries are happy to photocopy and snail-mail or scan the relevant pages and e-mail a PDF of them to you, either via an ILL request or by contacting the libraries that hold the item directly.

If you don't know just what you need out of the book, or need a lot of material, it might be best to contact a library that holds the item directly, and speak to the librarian. The more information you can give the librarian about your needs, the more likely it is that we can find what you need. As an example, I manage the special collections (including genealogy and local history) at my university library. If you need an obituary from the microfilm of the local newspaper, I can get it for you, as long as you can specify at least the month and year of death.

[52 Weeks to Better Genealogy was developed by my friend Amy of We Tree and is hosted by] © Amanda Pape - 2010


  1. My intent with this one was to use it for general genealogy education and reference books. Sometimes we can't afford to buy all the ones we want, so ILL helps fill that gap.

    For my own task, I ordered "They Came in Ships" through ILL because it's been in my to-real pile list for weeks.

  2. I think folks will have good luck getting the general genealogy education and reference books via ILL. I just don't want to see a lot of people getting their hopes up for obtaining the more rare sources through ILL. You never know, though, so it's ALWAYS worth it to put in the request.