Lending and Borrowing Across Borders: Issues and Challenges with International Resource Sharing

Sharing and Transforming Access to Resources Section International Interlibrary Loan Committee

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The charge of the RUSA Sharing and Transforming Access to Resources Section (STARS) International Interlibrary Loan Committee is to evaluate trends in international interlibrary loan (ILL) and resource sharing, to develop materials and resources for international ILL practitioners, and to promote international ILL resource sharing efforts. In 2006, the committee decided to survey U.S. libraries regarding their international ILL activities as a way to gather information on the current environment and identify strategies for improving international ILL. The survey was deployed in the spring of 2007. In the fall of 2008, the committee members drafted an executive summary (PDF), which was approved by the RUSA STARS Executive Committee and posted to the STARS website.

Specifically, the survey sought to determine what types of U.S. libraries participate in international ILL services as borrowers and lenders, to what extent libraries work internationally, and what tools and services survey participants use to go global. The results of the survey will help guide the committee in developing tools to resolve issues that may hinder international resource sharing and uncover opportunities to promote and expand both the use of and the participation in global ILL services. This article intends to reflect on changes in the resource-sharing environment since 1998, provide an overview of current practice, and lay the foundation for future International Interlibrary Loan Committee efforts.

Literature Review

Libraries in the United States and abroad have engaged in some level of international ILL for more than one hundred years. In the early 1900s, the Library of Congress began lending to other national libraries. International ILL grew slowly in the early decades of the twentieth century, but came to an abrupt halt during World War II. In the years following, U.S. libraries were reluctant participants in international ILL. This changed in 1959 with the American Library Association’s ratification of the International Interlibrary Loan Procedure for United States Libraries.1 Despite this long-standing practice and earlier adoption of procedures, the ILL community still lacks formalized efficient methods for conducting international transactions. Over the past several decades, international ILL has become a larger issue because of the rapidly changing information environment we face.

The ease with which library patrons are able to locate international resources is constantly growing. Anyone can easily locate the online catalog of an international library. It is also increasingly common to find international holdings in OCLC’s WorldCat regardless of whether those libraries participate in international lending. Our patrons are not aware of the difficulties in obtaining these resources. When they request items, they expect to get them. With the speed of new technology, our users are accustomed to instant gratification in their information seeking.

In addition to increased patron expectations, the inverse relationship between inflating materials costs and decreasing materials budgets necessitates a closer look at international ILL practices. With higher prices and more publications with less to spend, many libraries are being forced to turn to resource sharing for materials they previously would have purchased.

As a result, ILL practitioners increasingly express frustration over the lack of coherent procedures and communications methods and seek ways of improving international cooperation. In 2002, Robert Seal clearly delineated many of the challenges of international ILL:

(1) inadequate human resources to carry out interlibrary loan, especially on an international scale; (2) insufficient funding which prevents starting and sustaining collaborative projects; (3) out-of-date computer technology, incompatible systems, and poor telecommunications infrastructure; (4) a lack of international standards for bibliographic description, record format, and exchange of data; (5) copyright issues; (6) insufficient information about foreign holdings; (7) a lack of knowledge about methods of access, regulations and policies abroad; (8) negative attitudes or mistrust; (9) lack of resource sharing tradition; and (10) an unwillingness to share limited resources which could be lost or damaged.2

As the results of the committee’s survey showed, many of these challenges still exist or are perceived to exist. The need to solidify international ILL practices is thus important to improving our service and making our departments more efficient and effective.

Current documentation of ILL best practices should be used as a model for international ILL standards. A number of such documents exist and have begun to address some of the obstacles outlined by Seal. The Interlibrary Loan Code for the United States, maintained by the RUSA STARS Interlibrary Loan Committee, was originally adopted in 1994. Revised in 2008, it continues to guide U.S. ILL practices.3 Rather than maintaining a separate document regarding international ILL, the code defers to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA) International Lending and Document Delivery: Principles and Guidelines for Procedures. IFLA’s document comprises eight principles, which are reinforced by accompanying guidelines.4 The U.S. ILL code and IFLA’s guidelines both cover the responsibilities of requesting and supplying libraries. IFLA provides more extensive guidelines for copyright and payment issues, two of the major obstacles identified in developing international cooperation between libraries.

Regional groups also have endeavored to create standards, as demonstrated by the Greater Western Library Alliance (GWLA) Task Force on Interlibrary Loan. This organization’s best practices report, last updated in 2004, is organized into three levels: conceptual, structural, and procedural.5 This structure emphasizes the need to keep an eye on the big picture of interlibrary services. Not only must we standardize day-to-day procedures, we also must create a common vision of resource sharing.

Elkington and Massie discussed the history of international interlending in the United States and United Kingdom since 1900.6 While international ILL did occur in the early twentieth century, it lacked the formalization we are now trying to achieve. In the late twentieth century we saw advances such as the International Standards Organization (ISO) ILL Protocol. This protocol provides for standard messages to be sent between libraries and has incited an increase in standards-compliant software, such as OCLC WorldCat Resource Sharing and ILLiad. ISO–compliant ILL operations have an advantage in the international ILL arena because of the inherent compatible communications infrastructure created in the ISO ILL Protocol.

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