Interlibrary loan: Marketing the unmarketable, or avoiding the deer in the headlights

by Kris Turner

At the last AALL conference, I was fortunate enough to take part in the Future of ILL: A Debate, a program that aligned two groups of librarians against each other, one side feeling ‘warm’ towards ILL and the other ‘cool.’ I was one of those feeling warm and fuzzy towards ILL, and I doubt that I would ever feel ‘cool’ towards it, barring a dramatic shift in policy or cost. After all, this venerable blog had a post in 2011 entitled Isn’t Interlibrary Loan great?and who am I to argue with that?

However, the debate at AALL really got me thinking about how interlibrary loan is promoted to users in academic law libraries and whether that promotion confuses or scares the user. Interlibrary loan is a patron services ‘gift,’ but how should we give it?

I feel fairly certain that ILL is a vital component of practically every law library, but he process can be cumbersome (though less so than in the past). To what extent should users know about this process? Should librarians just tell them “to ILL it” or should there be more depth to the discussion?

With ILL, I’m often concerned that over-describing the service or that trying to give the gift of ILL to students, faculty, or attorneys will lead to this reaction:

Here are some tips and tricks I have learned in promoting ILL without getting the deer in the headlights look in response.

  1. Take a middle road and explain as necessary, but not too much. Obviously each student/faculty member/attorney is different and may ask for background on how their interlibrary loan request works, how long it will take, etc. To volunteer an explanation right away gets that slightly baffled and glazed over look, suggesting they are thinking, “Just give me my book already!”
  2. I am the liaison for two of the law journals at Wisconsin, and I make it a special point to present how ILL works to them since they are reliant on it for cite-checking and need to know more than the average user. I have found that this paves the way a much smoother semester with much less confusion about requests and timing. Preparation pays off for an organization that will expend plenty of energy on interlibrary loan and saves the library time and money as the semester rolls on.
  3. Make yourself available to answer questions about interlibrary loan and know how it works. ILL can seem like a black hole to librarians that don’t work with it on a daily basis. Take some time and familiarize yourself with the steps that each request goes through so you aren’t caught off-guard when a patron asks for more details about those three little letters. I’ve had numerous students leave the reference desk with a look of relief on their faces after we walked through their first ILL request together.

Beyond law reviews and ‘power users,’ how much should ILL be marketed? Should users be aware of the option as a powerful tool in the library, or should they discover it only when the situation requires it?

I’m sure we’ve all run into the ‘power user’ who makes ILL requests on a regular basis. Should more users be brought up to their level? I’m not so sure. I can see many users immediately jumping to ILL as an option before properly checking for the book or article via other, cheaper channels. At the same time, though, other users miss out on research opportunities because they simply don’t know to ask how to get an article or book.

Such is the paradox of ILL: A great service (but not a good first option) that is often an unknown or barely known quantity to our patrons. I like the idea of having a sign or a session that mentions ILL in passing and piques users’ interest. From there, they can ask a librarian  well-versed in ILL to clue them in on the wonder that is interlibrary loan and blow their mind:


GIF from Giphy

I do think that this often under-utilized ‘gift’ deserves more attention and promotion. Knowing the process of ILL ahead of time and targeting the groups that will need it most, such as law reviews, will help spread the word about this service that expands any user’s library experience.

This entry was posted in Library Collections, Marketing, Patron Services and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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