October 22, 2017

Interlibrary Loan and Stockholm Syndrome | Peer to Peer Review

In libraries, we place a lot of value on sharing. I think the time has come to give that value some critical attention.

In the online environment, the concept of “sharing” becomes genuinely problematic—partly because its meaning becomes unclear (let’s call this the semantic problem), and partly because it inevitably means copying (let’s call this the legal problem).

In the print environment, neither of these problems existed when it came to sharing library books. It was very clear what it meant to “share” a book or a bound journal volume—it meant that I temporarily gave up access to my copy so that someone else could have access to it. No additional copies were created by the sharing process. The legal problem was more or less straightforward as well, thanks to the First Sale Doctrine, which said that as long as I had legally procured my copy of a book, I could share (or sell, or hide, or destroy) that copy freely.

In the online environment, of course, the line that separates “sharing” from “copying” becomes fuzzy at best. Although we use the word “sharing” to describe what happens when Library A provides Library B with access to an online document that Library A owns and Library B doesn’t, what usually actually happens is that Library A creates a second copy of that document. While this is often perfectly permissible under copyright law (and while there are good reasons for publishers to allow it within reason as a matter of principle), legally speaking it’s not nearly as straightforward as traditional interlibrary loan was, and the issues around such “sharing” become difficult. And by “difficult” I mean truly difficult, with conflicting needs and genuine, reasonable concerns on both sides of the owner/user divide.

One reason that the conversation around this issue is so fraught, I think, is that we in libraries have been reluctant to acknowledge and deal with that difficulty. And I believe this is due in part to the status of “sharing” as a halo word, one that is largely designed to stop conversation rather than to make it more productive. Who can object to sharing? This was a rhetorical tactic also adopted by those who advocated the unrestricted copying and redistribution of music during the heyday of Napster in the early 2000s. Advocates of the practice called it “sharing,” the copyright holders called it “piracy,” and of course the conversation went nowhere because how can you have a reasonable conversation with someone who opposes sharing or with someone who favors piracy?

But that’s not the main reason it’s become so hard to figure out what to do about interlibrary loan in the digital age. The other one, I think, is deeper and more intractable, and it has to do with what I think of as a library-specific version of Stockholm Syndrome (the tendency of some people who have been kidnapped to eventually begin sympathizing with their captors).

There are certain practices in librarianship that have arisen not because they have anything intrinsic to recommend them, but because the print environment made them necessary. We were kidnapped by these practices, forced by the limitations of format to engage in them even though they weren’t particularly effective or practical. Over time, these practices have come to seem like fundamentally important library tasks—or, in extreme cases, even core values of librarianship.

Typically, the process takes place like this:

  1. A practice emerges as a stopgap measure to deal with a limitation of print formats;
  2. Over time, librarians become very good at this practice;
  3. The practice eventually becomes a subdiscipline of librarianship;
  4. The practice comes to be associated with a “core value” of the profession;
  5. The practice comes to be considered part of the essential nature of librarianship;
  6. In some cases, the practice will come to have “halo words” associated with it—terms that make questioning the practice seem morally suspect.

This can go on for years and years, but conflicts eventually arise when the information environment changes in such a way that the practice in question is no longer needed. Such environmental changes cause stress to librarians and staff whose careers may have centered on the practice. They then invoke “core values” in order to resist responding appropriately to the change.

Interlibrary loan is hardly the only area of librarianship experiencing this kind of pressure. To some degree, I would suggest that this dynamic has shaped the development of modern cataloging, some aspects of serials management, and even traditional collection development. But the online environment doesn’t pose the same kind of existential threat to those areas of our profession; fundamentally traditional collection development, cataloging, and serials management are still possible in this environment. For interlibrary loan, the future is much less clear; today it’s becoming increasingly possible to provide access both effectively and affordably without entering into the legally and semantically difficult realm of “sharing.” And I think we need to accept and actively acknowledge that this is a good thing—not a betrayal of our core values.

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson (rick.anderson@utah.edu) is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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  1. When all learning resources (books, pictures, archives, whatever) are provided free of charge (no payment expected by author, publisher or any other intermediary), then you may have a point. Until then, sharing the cost of learning resources remains one of the core features of libraries.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      I think you and I are invoking very different contexts for the concept of “sharing.” Interlibrary loan isn’t an example of “sharing costs” (though it certainly does impose costs on all participants), but rather an example of sharing access.

    • ILL is sharing costs too, in that scarce or expensive resources are not bought by every library that has (maybe temporary) need of them. The whole community of users (not just one library’s users) saves the cost of having to buy more copies. Of course the pattern of ILL is changing with new technology, that much is obvious.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Sharing resources is not the same thing as sharing the cost of resources. In fact, ILL is an example of the opposite dynamic: with ILL, the lending library pays for a resource (i.e., assumes its full cost) and then gives the borrowing library the opportunity to have access to that resource at no cost. That’s not cost-sharing; it’s the opposite of cost-sharing. (Both libraries incur overhead costs while participating in the ILL process, of course, but that’s a separate issue from the cost of owning the resource.)

      Nor is ILL typically employed to provide interinstitutional access to scarce or expensive resources–in fact, the rarer and more expensive a book is, the less likely it is that the owning library will make that book available to other libraries via ILL. ILL is typically used for commodity books–books that are neither rare nor unusually expensive.

    • I order a book which is obtained by my local public library through ILL. It is cheaper for them to do this than to buy the book themselves, as it costs (say) £150 — or because it is out of print and not easily obtainable secondhand. In such a case, the libraries are sharing the cost of what I would regard as an expensive book, or a book which is not otherwise readily obtainable: my local library bears the administrative and transport costs, the supplying library bears the cost of buying the book together with some administrative overhead costs. Moreover, libraries are by definition enabling the community of users to gain access to material either at no cost to themselves or for a modest contribution to the administrative costs; they are therefore enabling all of us to share the costs of resources, each of us contributing a little through taxes, rates etc.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      The administrative and transport costs of performing an ILL have nothing to do with the cost of the book. They are costs that are completely created by the ILL service itself, which is a big part of what’s wrong with traditional ILL. This reality is, in fact, a strong argument in favor of coming up with an entirely new approach to sharing access. I’m going to propose a structure for doing so in my next column — and it will be one that eliminates the inefficiency, awkwardness, and expense of “sharing.”

  2. Fantastic article Rick. I am very glad to see you make the important distinction between a library process and a library value. As a library student, it is troubling to see many of my peers in classes defending a currently information structure as a core library value rather than as a construct created out of traditional necessity.

  3. “Both libraries incur overhead costs while participating in the ILL process, of course, but that’s a separate issue from the cost of owning the resource.” I’m not sure why it is a separate issue, any more than the cost of ownership for a book (curation, shelf space, etc.) is a separate issue.

    The “why” of print sharing is changing radically as libraries realize the value of collection sharing. I realize this isn’t quite relevant to your main point, which is that something you deem an expedient has been classified as a core value. From a book-centric point of view, you’re absolutely on target. Shift focus to the user, and the concept of ensuring that any user can have access to any book, and the point is less clear. But a good caution all the same that just because we do something doesn’t make it sacred.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      “I’m not sure why [ILL overhead cost] is a separate issue, any more than the cost of ownership for a book (curation, shelf space, etc.) is a separate issue.”

      It’s a separate issue because owning a book doesn’t have to mean sharing it physically with another library. The argument that doing ILL constitutes sharing the cost of a resource assumes that ownership of a book necessarily implies the willingness to mail it around to other libraries on request. That’s a piece of rhetorical sleight-of-hand designed to make ILL seem like a core function of libraries. In fact, the overhead costs of ILL are created entirely by the practice of ILL; they don’t follow inexorably from acquisition of the book (whereas local overhead, such as curation, cataloging, shelf space, etc. are in fact implicated by ownership of the book). In other words, if you buy the book you do have to take care of it–but you don’t have to share it. If you do decide to share it, then doing so will create new costs. If you decide not to share it, you won’t have those costs.

      Nor do I think the value of collection sharing is something that’s being “realized” (as if it were a given); I think it’s something that’s being asserted, and I think it needs more critical examination. If sharing can be obviated rather than further entrenched, then I think we have a professional obligation to examine that option. I’ll talk more about that in my next column.

  4. Very nice article Rick.
    When will u post a new one?