The Interlibrary Loan Community Mobilizes — Mostly from Home — to Meet the COVID-19 Crisis

As every aspect of our lives is disrupted by the unfolding COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been moved, inspired, and enlightened by accounts of various groups and communities joining together, under trying circumstances, to provide continuous essential support for each other and for those who depend upon them.

Computer and a plant on a desk in front of a window
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

The resource sharing community, of which I am a part, is one such group.  This is a community that is used to — and extremely good at — pulling together.  Even in a crisis, interlibrary loan continues to function at an extremely high level of efficiency, adapting hour by hour, buoyed by the extraordinary efforts of staff and administrators at libraries, consortia, and service providers.

It is worthwhile to capture some details of how interlibrary loan staff and those who support them have responded to this global emergency, by improvising and sharing solutions to system-wide challenges that didn’t exist a few short weeks ago, repeatedly pivoting to new and better solutions as circumstances warrant, and staying ahead of the curve even as they contend with constant changes in what is known, anticipated, and feared. 

SHARES, a consortium of OCLC Research Library Partnership member institutions, is a lens through which I have been observing the resource sharing community quite closely for over 20 years as coordinator of the group’s activities.  SHARES is unusual in its mix of library types, multi-national membership, and special relationship with OCLC Research, but in so many aspects it is a typical resource sharing group.  The emphasis is on getting library materials to those who need them, anywhere they are needed, and collaborating deeply with peers and partners in order to do so.  Almost every SHARES library also belongs to multiple other consortia, and the sharing of ideas as well as material happens copiously in all directions.

Hours after the World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration on March 11, I asked SHARES participants how they were coping with the barrage of changes coming at them at their home institutions. By morning, responses had flooded my inbox. They reflect the resource sharing challenges and expectations being experienced by staff and administrators everywhere, in that initial wave of disruption:

  • Most anticipated that their libraries would stay open, at least for a while. (This soon became impossible for almost every library.)
  • Borrowing and lending of physical items would diminish; article and chapter requests would increase.  (Three weeks later there is no lending of physical items that I’m aware of, though a few libraries are still able to scan physical items onsite; the emphasis has shifted to improving workflows for sharing e-resources.)
  • Academic libraries would need to cope without student workers. (Some changed the status of their student workers to regular part-time so they could be permitted to work remotely.)
  • Libraries would need to develop work-from-home contingency plans.  (Which have now been fully implemented for most.)
  • Interlibrary loan offices would need to mobilize to ensure faculty and students received support in a 100% online teaching and learning environment.  (An unprecedented shift with which all levels of education are suddenly grappling.)
  • Libraries were proactively extending due dates and suspending overdues and recalls.  (Consortia and the broader interlibrary loan community have since built consensus around best practices for these steps, and service providers such as OCLC and Atlas Systems have provided support and, where possible, batch processes.)
  • Libraries were scaling back: limiting onsite access only to primary constituents; deflecting incoming requests for physical loans or shifting their online status to non-supplier; not shipping overseas. (All this became the global norm within a few days of the pandemic declaration, with no onsite access for patrons even in the few instances where staff remained onsite.)

Several pointed out that a crisis does not mean a suspension of copyright, while others admitted to being more open, temporarily, to sharing larger portions of materials. Within hours, copyright specialists shared a statement, offering advice on applying fair use to library materials during the pandemic.

Attention soon shifted from the operational to immediate concerns regarding health and safety. How will we minimize the risk of virus exposure? Are folks wearing gloves? Using disinfectant? Quarantining incoming packages? And for how long? Within hours, someone shared a link to recommendations based on a scientific study.

The interlibrary loan community shared and compiled resources, offered tips, and crowd-sourced tools to address emerging needs absent in the current resource sharing infrastructure: Which lenders are still scanning from physical items, and which are only able to supply from e-resources? For how long have you renewed books you’ve loaned to other libraries? Are you still able to receive packages, or should your packages be held?  (Soon every library indicated, “Hold my returns.”) OCLC and Atlas Systems quickly created and posted guides for adapting resource sharing systems to the current emergency environment, with frequent updates as new needs and questions emerged from the community.

The second wave of change came when many national and regional governments issued stay-at-home orders.  Soon we were all working from home. Many library and service provider staff had never worked remotely before, had never accessed their resource sharing servers from a remote location, and at first lacked equipment. These obstacles are being overcome. Borrowing continues for most libraries, and lending continues for many.  In SHARES, the proportion of active suppliers dropped from 60% on March 13 to about 50% a week later, but it has risen again to 66% as more libraries overcome offsite operational hurdles. Content providers relaxed paywalls and found other ways to make material freely available for the duration of the crisis; the Internet Archive announced the National Emergency Library. All segments of the resource sharing community continue to share material, information, patience, and encouragement.

Last week, the OCLC Delivery Team held a Webinar on how to utilize our resource sharing services most effectively during the COVID-19 crisis. This event was led by our new resource sharing director, Peter Collins, who started at OCLC just one month ago, having come over from the University of Pennsylvania. Over 950 members of the interlibrary loan community took part. The vast majority of participants attended from home. Product managers walked through methods for optimizing our discovery and resource sharing services. Meg Massey of Pennsylvania State University and Meg Atwater-Singer of the University of Evansville presented steps they’re taking in their own operations. An extended Q&A period saw open discussion of innovative practitioner-devised workarounds that address some new requirements arising during the pandemic that the current systems aren’t designed to meet.

It was an extraordinary session — a perfect illustration of all aspects of the resource sharing community working together, shoulder to shoulder (or, now, webcam to webcam!), to meet every challenge, great and small. The situation continues to evolve, even as I write this.  I’ve been holding live virtual town halls with SHARES members twice a week, where we share emerging questions, issues and solutions.  The outcomes of this time are still being written.  Meanwhile, the interlibrary loan ecosystem is still fulfilling its mission, as it always has. Depend upon it.