InterLibrary Loan

A brief description of the Inter-Library Loan program:

"Inter-Library Loan" is a program through which an individual may borrow books and materials from libraries outside their local geographic area that are not contained in the collections of their local library. A surprising array of genealogical books and materials can be obtained through Inter-Library Loan, including family history and local history books. Most local public (municipal) and university libraries participate in this program by lending materials and by requesting materials for their patrons. Each library will have its own policies and procedures regarding inter-library loans. They may or may not assess a small fee to cover the sending library's postage charges.

Generally, libraries will only send materials which are part of their normal circulating collection. Reference books, rare books, etc. which cannot be checked out by local patrons will not normally by lent out through Inter-Library Loan. Typically, genealogy and family history books are within the library's non-circulating collection, but from my own personal experience, at least one library can usually be found that will lend the book or a microfilm/microfiche version can be found which will be lent. Occasionally, there will be some restrictions such as requiring the individual to use the item in the library. (Surprisingly, more often than not, patrons can take these items home.) Libraries are also very helpful in making photo copies of a few pages of those materials that they do not lend. Lending periods are typically much shorter than your library's normal lending period and may be as short as seven to ten days.

The starting point is to visit your local public library to determine 1) if they participate in the Inter-Library Loan program (they probably do) and 2) what their policies and procedures are. They will probably only provide this service to residents of their town who have a current library card. University libraries usually restrict the service to registered students and faculty. They will probably have a simple form to fill out which will require the basic bibliographic information about the item(s) requested: Title, author, publisher, date, etc. Some libraries now can accept requests from their card holders through the internet. Those libraries usually also provide off-site access to Worldcat (see below). If a lender can be found, it usually takes two to four weeks.

Different requesting libraries (i.e. your local public library) will have different policies regarding charges. Normally, the requesting library is charged by the lending library for shipping costs. The receiving library may bill the patron for these charges or may absorb them.

Libraries have their own internal mechanisms for locating other libraries that have and are willing to lend the requested item. I still haven't figured out how they do this. I guess that is a secret, mystical art known only among the librarian fraternity.

There is a website that is a consolidation of the catalogs of libraries across the country, from large to small. It is close to being a national library catalog and will display libraries across the country that own a specified item. It is known as "Worldcat." Initially it was not accessible by the public at large through the internet and had to be accessed through on terminals at your local public or university library. Those libraries may provide off-site access to registered card holders. As of about September 2007 there is a free, open Worldcat website at It appears to be the same database as accessed at libraries, but I prefer the interface and display of the library version.

Searching Worldcat for your surnames and locations may reveal additional sources. If you already know the name of a specific publication, you can search Worldcat to determine availability. Worldcat attempts to consolidate libraries' listings for the same publication and assigns an "OCLC" accession number which is used to request the item. Despite the consolidation attempts, a particular item may have more than one listing due to slight variations in title or other identifying information entered, edition, or form (hardcopy, microfiche, microfilm, etc.). Worldcat can display a list of the libraries that own the item but it does not state whether the item is part of that library's circulating collection and will be lent. However, it is becoming more sophisticated in that in some cases, links are provided to the local holding library's own catalog, where circulation status can be checked. That has helped me in a couple cases to locate a circulating copy that my library staff couldn't find.

Library notes:

See also American Library Association "Interlibrary Loan Code for the United States" for more details.

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