Managing interlibrary loan returns and overdues during the pandemic: emerging consensus from the SHARES resource sharing consortium

Overflowing bins of returned books, courtesy of Emily Batista, University of Pennsylvania

Since March 2020, when COVID-19 forced most libraries to shut down, send staff home to work remotely, and focus on providing all services digitally, I’ve been bringing together members of the SHARES resource sharing consortium every week for virtual town halls. We’ve averaged six sessions a month over the past six months. At each town hall, we exchange information, ask questions, and work together to figure out how to continue offering interlibrary loan services amidst the unprecedented challenges and disruptions brought on by the pandemic. Our discussions focus on many of the same challenges facing resource sharing folks everywhere.

With this blog post, and others to follow, I will share fresh highlights of these SHARES conversations in the hope that knowing details of our emerging solutions — as well as what’s still tripping us up — will be useful to the broader interlibrary loan community. (In future posts, I will point to work that a group of SHARES volunteers is doing to turn the town hall highlights into a series of topical FAQs. So stay tuned!)

Managing interlibrary loan overdues and recalls during the pandemic

After months of working at home, staff are now returning to their libraries, implementing safety protocols, ramping up services, and in some cases welcoming library users back into the building. Physical collections are back in play. One consequence of libraries closing suddenly and staying shut down for several months is that there is now quite a large backlog of interlibrary loan books that were caught in limbo when a state of emergency was declared back in March.

There are many aspects of this challenge that deserve attention, and more than one way to go about solving the problem of getting tens of thousands of stranded books back to the lending libraries where they belong. SHARES members spent a recent town hall discussing the most constructive point of view to have about the return process in the time of COVID, as both a borrower and a lender, and were able to reach a consensus on the “best” philosophy for managing overdue notices and recalls during a pandemic — at least the best philosophy for the SHARES consortium. (SHARES is a mix of small, medium and large academic libraries, special libraries focusing on law and art, and one major public library — about 100 libraries in all, at 70+ institutions, spread across 5 countries. What works best for your library or consortium may well differ from SHARES solutions, but we hope the questions we’re asking and approaches we’re taking will contribute to conversations happening across the global resource sharing system.)

Is there a consensus among SHARES members on managing interlibrary loan returns and overdue notices during the pandemic crisis?

Yes. As a guiding principle, SHARES members decided to prioritize returning the actual physical items to lenders over spending staff time sending and responding to online renewal requests or overdue notices. This led to agreement on the following recommendations:

  • We should all have empathy for each other all across the resource sharing community and assume that everyone is doing their best under difficult circumstances.
  • We should all assume that the vast majority of shared items will come back to the lender, though it may take awhile.
  • Borrowers should prioritize physically returning materials to lenders and ask for renewals for those items only as time allows.
  • Lenders should turn off automatic overdue notices.
  • Lenders should wait at least 30 days past the due date before sending an overdue; 60 days would be even better, during the pandemic.
  • Lenders should seriously consider offering 12- or 16-week loan and renewal periods to cut down on all the staff time associated with processing overdue notices and renewals.
  • If a lender needs a specific item back, a recall is probably more effective than an overdue notice.
  • Items already overdue before the crisis are different from items shared during the pandemic that have since gone overdue; lenders will understandably feel more urgency about resolving such long-overdue transactions.

What is the thinking behind the SHARES consensus on managing interlibrary loan returns and overdue notices during the pandemic crisis?

A number of factors and shared assumptions led SHARES participants to agree on the best way to manage interlibrary loan returns and overdue notices during the COVID-19 crisis:

  • Staff returning to libraries are scrupulously sorting through bins of returned books and giving priority to sending things back to lenders, using OCLC’s Physical ILL Return and Lending Status Map to see who is accepting returns.
  • Not all institutions have allowed staff back into their buildings yet, and many of those who are back inside are staffed with skeleton crews.
  • Most patrons are still physically far away from campus, and many libraries are going to great lengths to get items back from them, with some providing their patrons with prepaid shipping labels.
  • Getting waves of overdue notices from interlibrary loan lenders does not in any way help borrowing libraries manage this process.
  • Lenders should assume borrowers are doing their best and that the material will be coming back in the months ahead.
  • SHARES members are behaving this way as lenders themselves.

Interlibrary loan practitioners from many libraries across the global system are expressing concerns in public forums about getting their materials back from borrowing libraries. Some want to be reassured that the items will indeed be coming back; others anticipate that the items they’ve loaned out will be needed soon by local users. These are, of course, legitimate concerns. SHARES’ approach during the pandemic has been for lenders to save recovery and recall efforts for those specific cases where a particular item is needed back as soon as possible, while holding off on sending overdue notices or invoices for less urgent cases so as not to add unduly to the workload of borrowing libraries. Resource sharing is based on generosity, trust, and a sense of shared purpose, and this approach to handling returns and overdues seems to SHARES members to align well with those principles.

How are you currently managing interlibrary loan overdue notices and returns at your library, or within your consortia? Let me know in the comments below.

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