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Replacing ILL with temporary leases of ebooks

By Michael Levine-Clark


One of the things that I love about being a librarian is that as a profession, we work together to share ideas and resources. Perhaps the most remarkable example of this collaborative spirit is interlibrary loan (ILL). We send each other books, DVDs, CDs, articles — whatever we can reasonably share. And we do this at considerable expense to our own institutions because we see a mutual benefit. When we lend something, we know that other libraries will lend things to us, for our students and faculty to use. ILL is amazing, a wonderful service, but as I’ve argued before, it doesn’t make much sense in a world of digital collections.

With physical objects (typically books), ILL is often the only way for my library to provide our users with the research material they need. For books that aren’t in our collection and are often out of print, the only place we can go is to another library. But ILL is a time-consuming and expensive practice. Consider the steps:

  1. A student identifies a book that she needs for a research project.
  2. She searches her library catalog and discovers that it’s not available locally.
  3. She fills out a web form to request that her ILL department borrow that book from some other library.
  4. The ILL staff do some searching, find another library that owns that book, and request it.
  5. The other library receives that request.
  6. Staff at the other library identify a location for that book, pull it from the shelf, check it out, pack it up, and mail it to my library.
  7. Staff at the borrowing library unpack the book, check it in to the ILL system, and generate a notice to the student that her book has arrived.
  8. The student comes to the library and checks the book out.
  9. When she is done, she returns it.
  10. The local ILL staff check it back in, pack it back up, and mail it.
  11. The other library receives it.
  12. Staff at that library unpack it, check it back in, and return it to the shelf.


All of those steps have costs involved — some of which are sunk into salary. In a recent study, Lars Leon and Nancy Kress estimated that it costs a library $9.62 on average to borrow a book and $3.93 to lend a book (and every transaction involves both sets of costs).

Imagine the same set of steps for an e-book:

  1. A student identifies an e-book that she needs for a research project.
  2. She searches her library catalog and discovers that it’s not available locally.
  3. She fills out a web form to request that her ILL department borrow that e-book from some other library.
  4. The ILL staff do some searching, find another library that owns that e-book, and request it.
  5. The other library receives that request.
  6. Staff at the other library check to make sure they have the right to loan that e-book.
  7. They either send a PDF or a link (probably turning off access to the e-book locally).
  8. Staff at the borrowing library receive the PDF or the URL, check it in to the ILL system, and generate a notice to the student that her e-book has arrived.
  9. The student logs in to access the e-book.


There are fewer steps, but this is still an expensive and inefficient process, particularly when you consider that the student has to wait for something that could be available immediately in digital format.

Librarians need to stop trying to recreate ILL for e-books. Instead, we should work with publishers to develop a model to lease e-books temporarily. Imagine these steps:

  1. A student identifies an e-book that she needs for a research project.
  2. She searches her library catalog and discovers a link to a version that can be leased by the library temporarily.
  3. She clicks the link to that e-book and begins reading, while behind the scenes her library is billed for that use.


If we could do this for less than the cost of a typical ILL transaction, we could save money and time, getting that book to the student instantly. The major e-book aggregators (EBL, ebrary, MyiLibrary) for academic libraries already do this, but they only have a small portion of the books we need. Publishers need to collaborate with libraries and the aggregators to make it possible for libraries to gain immediate and temporary access to e-books at the point of need.

Michael Levine-Clark is the Associate Dean for Scholarly Communication and Collections Services at the University of Denver’s Penrose Library. He is co-editor of the journal Collaborative Librarianship, co-editor of The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science, 4th edition, and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, 4th edition. He has been a member or chair of many committees within library organizations, and has served on a variety of national and international publisher and vendor library advisory boards. He writes and speaks regularly on strategies for improving academic library collection development practices, including the use of e-books in academic libraries and the development of demand-driven acquisition (DDA) models. Read his previous blog post: “An academic librarian without a library.”

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If you’re interested in library topics, you may also be interested in The Oxford Guide to Library Research. With all of the new developments in information storage and retrieval, researchers today need a clear and comprehensive overview of the full range of their options, both online and offline, for finding the best information quickly. Thomas Mann, Ph.D., a former private investigator, is currently a Reference Librarian in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.

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Photograph of Steacie Science and Engineering Library at York University by Raysonho@Open Grid Scheduler. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jim Yates

    You have correctly identified a very broken ILL. The complete solution is available. Do you want to be the first to take advantage of this solution which does not interfere any other system that may be in operation and covers everything the library has for use?
    You are one of the few who seem to care about ILL. Please establish a conversation with me and visit the website, thedce.com. Jim

  2. The Lazy Librarian

    [...] Replacing ILL with Temporary Releases of ebooks July 16, 2012 Oxford University Press [...]

  3. [...] of Denver librarian Michael Levine-Clark argues that libraries should scrap their interlibrary loan (ILL) services and loan out ebooks instead. [...]

  4. [...] Replacing ILL with temporary leases of ebooks is a blog post by Michael Levine-Clark pointing to the inefficiencies of ILL in providing both print and ebooks and saying that “librarians need to stop trying to recreate ILL for e-books. Instead, we should work with publishers to develop a model to lease e-books temporarily.”  As essential as interlibrary loan has been to scholars and students over the years, Mr. Levine-Clark insists that  ” it doesn’t make much sense in a world of digital collections.”  He outlines the typical ILL process for both ebooks and  print books and while admitting that there are “fewer steps in the ebook process” he claims that both “are too time consuming and expensive.”  Instead he makes the argument that librarians  should spend their energy working with publishers “to develop a model to lease e-books temporarily” and offers a simple three step process that he claims “could save money and time, getting that book to the student instantly.” [...]

  5. [...] Michale Levine-Clark advocates for libraries to replace interlibrary loan with temporary ebook leases. [...]

  6. [...] There are some terrific resources for learning more about artists’ books. Vamp & Tramp Booksellers — besides having a wonderful name and being run by wonderful people — has a great website that makes it easy to get a sense of the books they carry. Joshua Heller Rare Books and Priscilla Juvelis have great selections as well. And the Guild of Book Workers maintains a useful list of Book Arts Links. Michael Levine-Clark is the Associate Dean for Scholarly Communication and Collections Services at the University of Denver’s Penrose Library. He is co-editor of the journal Collaborative Librarianship, co-editor of The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science, 4th edition, and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, 4th edition. He has been a member or chair of many committees within library organizations, and has served on a variety of national and international publisher and vendor library advisory boards. He writes and speaks regularly on strategies for improving academic library collection development practices, including the use of e-books in academic libraries and the development of demand-driven acquisition (DDA) models. Read his previous blog posts: “An academic librarian without a library” and “Replacing ILL with temporary leases of ebooks.” [...]

  7. Vanessa Elizebeth

    This could save money and time, getting that book to the student instantly.

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