License to ILL

siloInter-library loan (ILL) is one of the oldest forms of sharing collections in libraries. Cooperative collection development arrangements have existed since time immemorial. As each library has focused on building collections to meet the needs of their primary patrons, they have relied on other libraries for the ad hoc, out-of-scope user requests for books and journal articles.They either initiate ILLs formally via OCLC or another network or informally by calling, emailing, or otherwise contacting librarians at other institutions who own or have access to the needed item. Everyone ILLs. It is expected and needed. Librarians have a license to ILL.So why aren’t more librarians using this powerful weapon?

Why Go on a ILL-Less Mission?

I see more and more requests for copies of cases, copies of journal articles, and copies of book chapters or tables of contents on the listservs that I monitor. I set my law-lib listserv subscription to digest so I would only see these requests once a day, but I have seen an increase in these requests for materials on the other listservs to which I subscribe. I receive the ILL messages as they are posted. I am perplexed as to why this phenomenon is occuring. Do librarians not know how to ILL any more? Do they not know how to establish ILL arrangements? Do librarians have smaller in-house collections or subscription and that is why they are ILLing more? Are users requesting materials that need to be delivered yesterday or sooner than ILL can provide? Or, but no, it can’t be – are the librarians being lazy?! Because you never make requests for items on a listserv without having failed in getting it through ILL first.

How to ILL

I always assume that librarians are not lazy and do their homework, so perhaps the knowledge about ILL’ing isn’t being passed on from generation to generation? The tradition of ILLing is being lost? So here is how to ILL.

First, make sure you have accurate information. If you just have a case name and no citation to the source, get that. If you have an unknown abbreviation, decypher it. If you don’t have pagination for a book chapter or an article, get it. Some useful tools are the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations, library catalogs including Open WorldCat and the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalog, full-text law and non-law journal databases/scholarship repositories, and digital libraries like Google Books, HathiTrust, Gallica, etc. And some of these digital libraries could have the book, case, or journal article you’re seeking! The more information you have, the easier and faster it is to ILL when you need.

Once you have full information, you can initiate an ILL request. For newbies, note that you can not only ILL books, but also copies of cases, journal articles, government and international documents, and book chapters. For these partial sources, you need page numbers. Nowadays, you can sometimes get books within four to seven days of your requests, and scanned copies of cases and articles within a couple of days. ILL delivery times are much faster than they used to be. Try it and see!

If your library does not have a formal ILL arrangement, you can use the informal, old-fashioned, but still great “ILL” method – contact another librarian directly! This is helpful if you need something in a couple of hours, that day, or the next. Remember though, the other librarian’s time is important, so make sure you’ve exhausted other options – have done some searching first and ILL would take too long, etc. It’s like crying wolf too often. You don’t want that other librarian not to respond when you really need help in the future. Also, “help fatigue” is a real thing. Nice helpful librarians can get tired of helping…

Tip: Cultivate your informal ILL networks! Meet new librarians every chance you get. Try to attend conferences, workshops, symposia. Subscribe to listservs. Get a Twitter acount. Connect with librarians on Facebook and other social media. Every person you meet is a potential ILL resource. Network, network, network!


ILLing is a librarian competency. And with more and more collections budget cuts, a necessity. James Bond doesn’t go on a mission without first checking in with Q and getting his tools for the mission. And making sure his gun’s in order. He does his homework, his preparation first. Before doing an ISO (In Search Of) request on a listserv, check with your ILL folks first or try to ILL informally, off-list. You have a license to ILL. Use it! And best wishes on a successful mission!


  1. “Nowadays, you can sometimes get books within four to seven days of your requests, and scanned copies of cases and articles within a couple of days.”

    I think there is a huge disconnect between academic libraries and law firm libraries. I know how to submit an ILL, but academic libraries are often too slow for a law firm’s deadlines. We rarely have 4 to 7 days to wait for a resource.

  2. Christine Graesser

    Hi Lyo,

    In the late 1980’s and early 90’s, the local union list of titles held by local law firm libraries was a lifeline to librarians, and ILL didn’t just help us share resources and keep costs down. It was force that connected librarians as a community. Once email came into play and firms started converting to electronic format, that connection fell away.

    Since 1994 or so I have seen a lot of librarians posting ILL request to listservs who clearly hadn’t done their homework by trying existing resources or finding a copy through known colleagues before throwing it out there. My sense is these librarians often lack mentoring by more experienced colleagues. They often don’t join local AALL chapters or network in other meaningful ways. Could it be that the necessity of ILL before the internet was the glue of our profession?

  3. Lyo Louis-Jacques

    Joan: Thanks for your comment. Yes, I totally understand. We handle rush requests too and sometimes ILL is too slow. What I’m seeing are requests that do not look like they are rush or it looks like the requester has not tried contacting other librarians directly. Posting to a listserv is no guarantee that you’ll get what you requested that day or next. And you can have many list subscribers working on the same request which wastes their time? So, I’m just suggesting ILL if you have time, and if not, contacting libraries which have the item you need directly.

    Christine: Hi! I think that’s what I’m feeling – librarians who lack mentors or others who can help learn the ropes? Hmm, less of a community. Which is why I included info on how to ILL because I think they may not have that background on how to do so, and no one to ask?