University of Denver librarian Michael Levine-Clark argues that libraries should scrap their interlibrary loan (ILL) services and loan out ebooks instead. “ILL is amazing, a wonderful service,” he writes, but “it doesn’t make much sense in a world of digital collections.” My heart sank as I read that. While I can testify — and I’m speaking here as a library patron, not as a librarian — that ILL is both amazing and wonderful, I think he’s way off base in arguing that e-copies can replace original, physical books. [UPDATE: Actually, it appears that I'm the one who's off base; see Levine-Clark's clarifying comment below.]
For the past ten years, I’ve worked as a freelance writer in, successively, a small New England town, a small town in the West, and a small city in the West. I had no access to a research library in any of those places. What I did have was access to excellent online ILL systems. I could search for books and journal articles, order copies of ones I needed from dozens of public and academic libraries, and then pick them up at my local library branch. In some cases an electronic copy of the material would have been fine. In most cases, though, the physical book was essential. Some of the reasons have to do with the limited availability of electronic versions of many books. The ability to specify, in an ILL request, a particular edition of a book can be very important. It might be argued that this limitation will eventually be remedied by further scanning efforts and improvements in metadata, but eventually can take a long time to arrive. There’s also the problem of variability in ebook formats, interfaces, and quality. (My current public library offers immediate online access to some books and journal articles. The system is agonizingly slow and clunky, to the point where I now always bypass it and request a physical copy.) This, too, is a technical limitation and may be resolved at some point in the future. But it will be a limitation for a long time, and overcoming it will not be cheap or easy.
More fundamental, though, is the fact that, particularly when it comes to research, a book and an ebook are not the same thing. An ebook has certain advantages, such as the ability to do a full-text search (particularly valuable for books that don’t have indexes), but it also has disadvantages. It’s much easier to navigate printed pages than screen images — flipping backwards and forwards, jumping between lots of marked passages, skimming quickly, and so on — and it’s much, much easier to jump among several print books than to do the same thing with e-books. It’s important to note that, as most people move away from desktop computers with big screens and toward portable devices with small screens, the ebook’s navigational disadvantages are magnified, not reduced. (I discussed the shortcomings of ebooks for research more fully in an earlier post reporting on research into why students are often frustrated by e-textbooks.)
Levine-Clark points out that inter-library loans are fairly expensive transactions. (Though I think he exaggerates the cost a bit by drawing from a chart in a recent study in which the authors exclude cheaper, automated transactions that are made possible by online systems.) But costs have been coming down steadily, and ILL remains a wonderfully efficient way to allow a library to expand its collection without having to purchase books and other items that are used only rarely. And as libraries continue to prune their print collections, drawing on a pool of collections becomes ever more important. ILL also opens the collections of university research libraries to the patrons of public libraries, many of whom (like me) can’t borrow directly from the research libraries. And it allows people without computers, or with older machines that aren’t able to make use of modern web services, to borrow an extraordinary range of books and other materials. (Speaking for myself, I would be happy to pay a fee for an inter-library loan in order to help defray the cost. That seems only fair, given the budget constraints libraries are under.)
Maybe, in the end, ILL programs will have to be killed off to save money. I just hope that, in making such a decision, we remain conscious of what will be lost as a result. I think Levine-Clark gets it wrong in saying that ILL “doesn’t make much sense in a world of digital collections.” I believe it makes more sense than ever.