Thursday, October 10, 2013

The ILLbrarian is In, by Andrew Shuping

You've just graduated library school and you're heading off to your first job that involves...interlibrary loan? How the heck does that work? I mean, yes, you ordered things through for yourself through interlibrary loan, but no one ever explained how you're supposed to manage it. They never even mentioned it in library school (or, if you’re lucky, they mentioned it in passing). What do you do? Have no fear, for the ILLbrarian is here! Seriously ILL work can be fun and challenging. And it requires a wide variety of skills and talents to help the department work well.

What types of skills do you need to do this job?
  • You need the skills of an expert detective because you've got to be able to track down some of the most obscure citations ever. Your patrons will come to you with the title of a book written in French and know that it was published sometime between 1825 and 1925 and the cover might have been blue, but also could have been green. And you've got to work with that. It's fun, it's challenging, sometimes requires calling on the help of other librarians to find the thing and sometimes you just have to tell your patron that "Sorry, we can't find it. If you have more information let me know and we'll try again."
  • You need technology skills. Just like everyone else entering the library field you need to know how to operate a computer, a scanner, navigate the online world, and have the ability to troubleshoot on the fly. This is becoming more and more important as interlibrary loan operations are moving to the cloud and require some careful maneuvering to make sure your department stays running. You may be running an ILL management system, such as ILLiad or Clio. These can make processing requests and keeping statistics much easier, but the amount of work you have to set it up and keep it maintained? You’ll be putting all of your talents and skills to use some days.
  • You need budgeting skills, because money is tight everywhere and you've got to be able to know how much you're spending to acquire materials. Sure there are libraries and groups that will lend to you for free, but for those obscure items you’ve got to go to the Big Libraries on the block and they like to charge. So you have to watch and make sure you don’t spend too much on it all.
  • There’s also the copyright factor to consider. We typically follow the rule of five, which is you can request five articles from the same journal published within the last five years, and then after that you have to pay copyright on it. [Editor’s note: Sorry to butt in, but please understand that this is not legal advice Andrew is giving. Neither he nor I are intellectual property lawyers. Copyright law is constantly evolving.] And man...can some of those publishers *cough* scientific publishers *cough* charge a lot. Some of them can run $40 to a $100 for a 20 page article.
  • You need people and communication skills. Sure you’re working with citations all day and shipping and whatnot, but you have to be able to communicate not only with your own patrons as to their requests, such as letting them know that it’s there or you need more information, but you have to communicate with other libraries as well. Sometimes you have to send other libraries (or your own patrons) bills for materials, letting them know that you need something back, or even worse -- letting them know that you have to pay for an item. Stuff happens, it isn’t always pleasant, but you gotta put your best face on and deal with it. You also need to be able to work with vendors and tech support. Hopefully you’ll get a good vendor that will work with you and be honest. Sometimes’ve got to be nice, but firm, and let them know you won’t take crap. 
  • You need collection development skills. Five years ago this may not have been true, but more and more these days you’ve got to be able to look at a request and say “You know what, its better we go ahead and buy this one because it will benefit the collection.” And then you get to work within the confines of requesting stuff...but that’s a different story.

Other skills include: assessment, manual/procedure writing, and being able to manage people -- either staff or student assistants or both.

So it takes a wide variety of skills to be successful, but believe it or not...most of it you’ve already learned. You just get to combine it in new and exciting ways. 

Andrew Shuping is currently the Interlibrary Loan & Public Services Librarian at Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University Macon, GA. He has been involved in libraries for over nine years and with Interlibrary Loan for over seven years. Andrew can be found at and goes by the user name ashuping where ever he can, such as on Twitter: @ashuping.


  1. I was a library assistant in ILL for a little over a year, and I have to say the "detective-work" part is so true. In my experience, it was a job that definitely required strong tech skills AND strong people skills, and constant multi-tasking.

    1. Strong people skills are def. important, especially with having to deal with some of the patrons out there being a bit out there on occasion.

  2. We also need advocacy skills - to negotiate for licenses and copyright laws that do not restrict information sharing. We need teaching skills to help people when information is available locally in our libraries or online. And, like all librarians, we need to be problem solvers...and we need a sense of humor!

    1. Yes! I can't believe I forgot sense of humor. That's one of the most important qualities.