‘The Library Is A Listening Post’

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One of the most valuable tools for a research nerd is the interlibrary loan service provided by both academic and public libraries. Through ILL, one can request books, articles, microfilm and even DVDs. One fills out an online form provided by the library one patronizes. I have availed myself of this service uncounted times over the decades. It never fails to provide a small thrill when I’m notified that an item has arrived through ILL.

For example, through LeTourneau University’s Margaret Estes Library (where I have worked part-time for a year as a reference assistant) I obtained three years’ worth of the Cody (Wyoming) Enterprise newspaper on microfilm from 1938 to 1941. M

y father lived in Cody during that period, while my grandfather worked as a Boy Scout executive. I am trying to better understand what that was like, living in the town named after Buffalo Bill. The famed showman founded the newspaper there in 1899.

I recently borrowed a trade paperback apparently never cracked open, with a stiff spine and spotless pages. Remembering Heart Mountain is a collection of essays about the Japanese-American internment camp operated in Wyoming from 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945. My grandfather helped establish Boy Scout troops among Japanese boys at the camp, which was located 22 miles north of Cody. I plan to explore that topic in greater depth.

The inter-library loan system traces its beginnings back to the eighth century, according to an article published in the International Journal of Legal Information, published by a Yale law librarian. Three libraries in Germany exchanged manuscripts upon request of their patrons. Some libraries refused to loan material even to their own patrons, while others were more amenable to requests. After World War I, the article states, Denmark’s Royal Library borrowed books and manuscripts from 86 different libraries outside Denmark, and in turn loaned more than 1,300 books and manuscripts. The process was, naturally, laborious. A Danish professor during this time requested a manuscript from Paris, which arrived nine months later and cost him $12 for postage — a considerable sum at the time.

In the United States, the director of the Worchester, Mass. public library in 1876 suggested formalizing an interlibrary lending system for the country’s public libraries. The following decade, the library director at Berkeley initiated a program of interlibrary lending. That has evolved into the system used today. Most libraries now search to fill ILL requests using the Online Computer Library Center — OCLC — which began at Ohio State and now has a database with 30 million entries from more than 10,000 libraries.

Between semesters, the other part-time colleagues and I have been learning how to process inter-library loan requests. ILL falls into two categories: lenders and borrowers. The Estes library receives requests for books and electronic articles almost daily. A book is physically plucked from the shelf, outfitted with a book strap containing important information, and prepared for shipping. We also receive requests for articles that might be available from journals to which we electronically subscribe. Similarly, we try to find articles for our patrons electronically as well as locate books not held in Estes Library.

I earned a new appreciation for the complexities of ILL while learning the myriad steps necessary to complete a single transaction. It is a highly detailed process, not particularly complicated but with lots of steps. If a step is omitted, a book might not arrive or be returned. Without an electronic trail (backed up by a printed hard copies), it can be impossible to discern what allowed the process to break down.

Sometimes I am asked, when someone learns about my latest job, if libraries are going to vanish now that we are increasingly focused on obtaining information digitally. I have been asked, “Who needs libraries since we have Google?” The answer contains a number of components. For one thing, Google is not able to access obscure, paid-subscription journal articles — although Google Scholar is a valuable resource we use often. For another, both public and academic libraries have become centers of community. Walk into any public library and watch as folks use computers to search for jobs, read newspapers (yes, they still do that), children sit on the floor and listen to stories as they discover the wonders of books. Walk into an academic library, such as Estes, and find students studying together for an engineering exam, or doing homework. Public patrons use the computers and faculty members prepare for their next class, for a time enjoying the solitude of being out of their offices. Or they’re picking up an ILL request.

One of my favorite books of 2017 was The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It is ostensibly an account of the 1986 fire that seriously damaged the Los Angeles Public Library. It is also recounts Orlean’s deep appreciation of libraries, developed in childhood from weekly trips to her hometown branch with her mother. The book’s closing resonated with someone who writes books for the joy of doing so, knowing there is little money in it and less fame, at least at my level. But I have books I wrote sitting on library shelves, which gives me joy.

Here is what Orlean wrote:

The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that crazy courage — the writer’s belief that someone find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them.


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