Lending a Hand

Lending a Hand

Out-of-reach resources slowing your search? Interlibrary loan can put faraway books and microfilms within your grasp.


It’s happened to all of us: The book you desperately need to unblock your family history research exists, but the nearest library that has a copy in its collection is halfway across the continent. Welcome to the genealogy researcher’s classic mountain-and-Mohammed moment.

Fortunately, there’s a way to bring the book to you, without embarking on a trip to the library thousands of miles and hundreds of dollars away. It’s called Interlibrary loan — ILL for short — and you’ve probably heard of it, but maybe you haven’t actually tried it. The reason so many researchers fail to take advantage of ILL may be that this service is technically a library-to-library transaction. Although it’s unclear exactly when ILL was established, the Library of Congress <www.loc.gov> started loaning books as “the nation’s library of last resort” in 1902.

Here’s how ILL works: A library patron discovers the materials she wants to use aren’t available in her local library. She then makes a request and within a few weeks another library sends the materials to her local repository.

What can you borrow through ILL? Think of it as being able to check out something from a faraway library by remote control. That means you can borrow pretty much anything that circulates — books, videos, even microfilm and maps — at the click of a button. The bad news for long-distance genealogists is you can’t get items from reference shelves or rare-book collections. Periodicals don’t usually circulate, but you can obtain photocopies of articles. You also can request a photocopy of a chapter from a book, even one not available for borrowing.

The Internet has made it easier for you to locate the resources you need and place ILL requests via your local library. To get started, all you need is a library card; the first time you use ILL, you may have to fil1 out a registration form, too. Most libraries don’t charge for the federally funded ILL program, but some place limits on how many requests you can make. The ILL form may ask how much you’re willing to pay, though, in case the library on the other end levies a fee.

Besides your library card, you’ll also need patience. Technology may have sped up requests, but actually shipping your item takes anywhere from one to six weeks.

The ILL process can vary by library. Typically, after you obtain a library card and register for ILL, you fill out a request form — for the librarian to search and request on your behalfr — or use an electronic system such as WorldCat to search on your own. With more than a billion records of library holdings, WorldCat is the world’s largest bibliographic database. It represents the combined catalogs of more than 53,000 libraries in 96 countries that belong to the nonprofit Online Computer Library Center <www.oclc.org>.

The new Open WorldCat allows popular Web search engines and other partner sites to access millions of abridged WorldCat records. Simply type a search into Google <www.google.com> or Yahoo! <www.yahoo.com> and include the phrase (in quotation marks) “find in a library” or use <www.oclc.org/worldcat/open/tryit>. Open WorldCat will ask for geographic information, such as your ZIP code, to seek the item in a library near you.

When an item isn’t available nearby, ILL brings it to you. You may be able to send an ILL request directly from WorldCat, or your library may use a system such as ILLiad. Online requests generally get processed faster than those on paper. Many libraries, including the Library of Congress, accept ILL requests only via their online e-mail form and not on paper, by fax or through standard a e-mail message.

Your library will let you know when your requested item arrives; many also have online systems for checking ILL status. Then the process is much like checking out book from your local library. You may even be able to renew an ILL item, though this — as well as the initial loan term — varies by item and lending library. Photocopies and digital copies, of course, don’t have to be returned.

You can find some copies of noncirculating materials in digital form (PDF or TIFF files). The Library of Congress has even created a Digital Interlibrary Loan program for popular but fragile items that suffer from repeated copying. You can access these materials instantly at <www.loc.gov/rr/loan/illscanhome.html>. They even include a handful of family history items, such as a 1900 broadsheet outlining the American Genealogy of the Allied Families McKee.

So the next time you hit a brick wall, remember the powerful research assistant you keep in your wallet — your library card.

From the April 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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