Bringing an Amazon-Like Experience to Interlibrary Loans

Interlibrary loans fill a critical need in supporting the work of students and researchers. Even the well-endowed academic library can’t meet the demands of stakeholders by itself.

Improved Automation Speeds Up the Interlibrary Loan Process

Interlibrary loans fill a critical need in supporting the work of students and researchers. Even the well-endowed academic library can’t meet the demands of stakeholders by itself. By joining a network of peer institutions, libraries can leverage each others’ collections to expand the range of resources available to patrons.

However, delivering books and even digital resources to requestors in a timely manner can
be challenging.

“There is definitely a demand for fast turnaround times,” says Timothy Jackson, Resource Sharing and Fulfillment Program Manager for the State University of New York (SUNY) Shared Library Services division. “Students often need quick access to materials in order to complete an assignment. If a book or article shows up three days later, many students won’t even come pick it up — which is a waste of everyone’s time and money.”

Jackson and other librarians attribute students’ rising expectations to the “Amazon effect”: Consumers are used to experiencing 24-hour delivery service when they order something online, and they expect similar expediency from libraries.

Fortunately, technology is helping academic libraries speed up their fulfillment of interlibrary loan requests by automating certain workflows and streamlining the fulfillment process. This helps ensure more timely delivery of materials, creating additional value for libraries and their users.

“It helps us get more bang for our buck,” Jackson says.

Eliminating Time-Consuming Processes

Bowdoin College’s experience illustrates the challenges of fulfilling interlibrary loan requests in a timely manner — and how technology can help speed up the process.

At Bowdoin, an interlibrary loan team consisting mainly of student employees, fulfills all article requests and 15 percent of the college’s requests for returnable items. Last year, they processed more than 4,200 total requests from Bowdoin students (1,880 borrowed items and 2,365 digital articles) and fulfilled more than 7,400 requests from other libraries (3,039 returnable items and
4,370 articles).

Prior to automation, student employees would have to find the nearest location of each resource, request a copy, and keep track of the status of all requests. All of these processes were very time-consuming.

For the last dozen years, Bowdoin has used a service called RapidILL — recently purchased by Ex Libris — to automate these processes. “We benefit from a lot of automation,” says Guy Saldahana, Bowdoin’s Interlibrary Loan Supervisor. “Forty to 50 percent of our interlibrary loan requests now go out automatically to other libraries through RapidILL.”

Filling in Gaps

Before joining the Shared Services division for the SUNY library system, Jackson was the Resource Sharing and Reserves Coordinator for the SUNY Albany library. He says SUNY Albany saw its article retrieval time cut in half when it joined RapidILL.

These time efficiencies come from automatically processing requests when the borrower provides the International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) of an article or the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) of a requested book.

Bowdoin and SUNY Albany also belong to a consortium called the Information Delivery Services (IDS) Project, a resource-sharing cooperative with members nationwide. IDS has created middleware to help fill some of the gaps that exist in the automation of interlibrary loan workflows through services such as RapidILL.

For instance, a service called Article Gateway automatically searches through local databases and then external databases to find the correct ISSN of a requested article. It also fills in other missing or incorrect fields in an interlibrary loan request, such as the publication month and year — and it can automatically check for copyright permissions and determine the best option for overcoming copyright restrictions.

Along with RapidILL, IDS services “have helped us eliminate many manual processes, so requests can be passed along faster,” Jackson says.

Overcoming Challenges

The experiences of Bowdoin and SUNY Albany show that academic libraries still face challenges in trying to automate their interlibrary loan systems. There are many processes involved, and libraries must use different services to fill various gaps in their automated workflows.

However, the technologies are constantly improving — and Jackson, for one, is excited about what Ex Libris’ purchase of RapidILL will mean for libraries using the company’s cloud-based library services platform, Alma.

“We expect this will create a lot of interplay between Alma and RapidILL,” he says. “Getting Alma to talk directly to Rapid should streamline our workflows even further.”

Jackson and Saldahana will discuss how their libraries are bringing an Amazon-like experience to interlibrary loans through improved automation during a Nov. 14 webinar titled “Collaborative Approaches to Library Resource Sharing: Leveraging Consortial & Regional Partnerships for ILL Success.”


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