Interlibrary loan system failure tying up librarians’ time

  • Interlibrary loan coordinator Amy Bain processes books at Baker Free Library in Bow on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Interlibrary loan coordinator Amy Bain (right) checks out two interlibrary loan books for John Vaitkunas of Bow, who just returned a third interlibrary loan book, at Baker Free Library in Bow on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Interlibrary loan coordinator Amy Bain fills out an interlibrary loan routing slip at Baker Free Library in Bow on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Books from various libraries around the state wait to be processed by interlibrary loan coordinator Amy Bain at Baker Free Library in Bow on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/24/2018 12:09:51 AM

It’s not uncommon for the Concord Public Library to process more than a dozen interlibrary loan requests a day.

In fact, the library had to set a limit on how many requests each person can make per month to five, said library director Todd Fabian. If left to their own devices, he said, he figures some people would make 10, 15 requests a month.

But starting late last year, processing requests to borrow material from other libraries has been significantly more time-consuming, and as of last week, about 150 requests were unfulfilled, Fabian said. That’s because a component of the state’s interlibrary loan system – a vast information highway that allows the state’s 234 public libraries, as well as several university and public school libraries, to loan resources to one another – has been down.

Michael York, the state librarian at the New Hampshire State Library, said an effort to patch the system has been ongoing. But the system is old, from about 2002. The only way to really fix the problem, York said, is for a new system to be installed.

“There’s good reason for people to be upset,” he said. “They have to do the work that the system we purchased is supposed to do. ... We’re working as hard as we can to get this up and running. We understand that people are stretched.”

The problem is with the statewide catalog called the New Hampshire Union Public Access Catalog, York said. When the system is working perfectly, librarians can access the catalog and make a request for a book, video, or other library resource. The server then determines which libraries have the requested material and instantaneously sends out a request to those institutions.

Libraries are able to prepare those requests before the state’s courier service picks the books up and brings them to their requested locations. The whole process can take just a few days, York said.

The state operates this service five days a week, has 21 routes and facilitates the borrowing of hundreds of thousands of books a year, York said.

But the part of the server that generates the request is down, York said. For the past month, libraries have had to make manual requests, a process that involves checking the online catalog, making contact with a library by phone or email and hoping the item is available. Sometimes, requests are sent to the entire public library listserv, whether a library has an item or not.

The system breakdown has led to hours of extra work, York said.

Fabian said Concord has two library staffers who deal with loan requests, but is considering adding more staff to help deal with the problem. Interlibrary loans are popular with Capital City patrons: Fabian said the library loaned 3,131 items last fiscal year and borrowed 2,783 items.

Typically, Fabian said it might take a few days for a requested item to arrive. Now, it might be three to five days, sometimes longer, to even hear whether an item is available, he said. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some libraries have a slim staff or aren’t open every day of the week.

“It’s much more time-consuming,” he said. “The longer we go, the further we fall behind. We don’t want the public to not get the level of service they’re used to getting.”

For members of the Greater Manchester Integrated Library Cooperative System, a nonprofit consortium that incorporates 11 libraries in southern New Hampshire, the situation isn’t as challenging.

Emil Weiss, the head reference librarian at the Bedford Public Library, which is part of the consortium, said libraries are still getting requests from outside institutions that take additional time to process. But the consortium’s own server, separate from the state’s, has not been impacted by the system break.

Others, like the staff at the Tucker Free Library in Henniker, are feeling the strain.

“It has definitely put a burden on everything we’re trying to do,” said Denise Getts, the emerging technologies specialist for the Tucker Free Library. “I would say we’re spending many hours each day trying to keep up with ILL requests.”

She added: “We’ve had so many emails, I can’t even think anymore.”

Amy Bain, interlibrary loan coordinator for the Baker Free Library in Bow, said the library makes about 2,300 requests a year, and fills about 1,200. Many of their patrons take advantage of the system’s ability to access university books the average library doesn’t own. For example, the town’s Conservation Commission just requested a book on freshwater wetlands, she said.

The system being down, she said, means “almost all my working hours are used to fulfill interlibrary loan requests.”

York wrote in an email to the state’s librarians that several people have suggested that state legislators have failed to support the State Library in its efforts to replace the integrated library system, which operates interlibrary loans.

That’s not true, he said – the Legislature appropriated $500,000 last year to replace the system, and the state is in the early stages of researching which system they want to purchase and developing bids.

But that will take time, he said, as any bids have to be approved by the Executive Council and the governor.

“If people feel compelled to contact their legislators, it should be to thank them for providing the funds necessary to purchase a new statewide system,” he wrote. “The Legislature has done what we asked them to do; please do not accuse them of lack of support; they are supporting us in this effort.”

There’s one bright spot to the whole situation, said Dunbarton Public Library Director Mary Girard. A one-woman band, Girard handles the day-to-day operations of the library, and she admitted she feels some strain from the system being down.

“It’s been a pleasure to talk to people in person,” she said. “And we like to share – we’re happy to send things along.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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