Magazine article American Libraries

The Unfulfilled Promise of Resource Sharing; an Examination of Interlibrary Loan Practices Reveals Little Progress toward Equalized Public Library Service

Magazine article American Libraries

The Unfulfilled Promise of Resource Sharing; an Examination of Interlibrary Loan Practices Reveals Little Progress toward Equalized Public Library Service

Article excerpt

The unfulfilled promise of resource sharing

RESOURCE SHARING HAS AT least three components: interlibrary loans, intrablibrary loans between agencies of a single system, and reciprocal borrowing. All involve sharing the resources of different library agencies as needed to meet the needs of individual patrons. This article, however, deals primarily with interlibrary loans because the intent is to focus on the commonly expressed goal of equalizing service throughout the states in question.

Through resource sharing, librarians have intended to provide equal access to rural and small-town American by making available the holdings of all libraries anywhere in the state. The strategy to accomplish this goal has been to provide access to bibliographic databases and usually to create some form of statewide system for physical delivery of requested materials. Generally the effort depends heavily upon computer technology. For example, from New York:

The State's major long-term financial investment in libraries and the advanced technologies that are transforming them provides the opportunity to launch a new century of information availability to enhance economic vitality and human potential. The metapohors of the past that have described the broad and complex objectives of libraries--storehouses of knowledge, learning centers, windows on the world, poor man's universities--share a common theme: access to information. The Electronic Doorway Library can be a signal of commitment to use the astonishing capability of technology to overcome distance and time to deliver the totality of the State's information resources. The promise of the Electronic Doorway Library minimizes the inequities of library size and site to offer equal information access to every resident of New York State--a goal for the year 2000.(2)

Little is known about the effect of automation upon reciprocal borrowing or intralibrary loans, but the known effect of distance upon library use plainly suggests that the effectiveness of automation in rural areas would depend upon growth in ILL borrowing. Reciprocal borrowing tends to occur in urban areas where travel time to another library is not great. Therefore the change in ILL borrowing is perhaps the best available measure of the effectiveness of efforts to equalize service throughout a state.

Interlibrary loans in the U.S.

The NCES data for 1974, 1978, and 1982 were collected by polling individual libraries. All public libraries serving populations of 100,000 or more were sent questionnaires and then smaller libraries were sampled at different levels. Because standard errors are given for various data but not for ILLs, one cannot say with certainty how accurate the results were for these years, but they were probably fairly good considering the accuracy of other data. Another problem with these earlier NCES reports is that they do not say what the ILL levels were within a specific state.

In 1984 I wrote to all the states asking for the number of ILLs borrowed by their public libraries; 32 states provided data, mostly for FY 1983. I wrote again in January 1990. Strangely enough, not all of the same states could do the same for FY 1988, while others have now provided both FY 1988 and earlier data. As a result, I have been able to compare present levels of ILL borrowing with an earlier year for 35 states (Table 1). Because the 1988 NCES data does not always include all public libraries but rather the great majority of them for individual states, I have preferred to use data that was received in response to my January 1990 written requests, although this sometimes meant mixing FY 1988 and FY 1989 results. While this introduces possible errors, the small change from year to year or even over a period of years does not seriously compromise the final estimate of the nation's ILLs borrowed by public libraries. Entries in Tables 1 and 2 for which data were taken from the 1988 NCEs report are tagged. …

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