Another way to hack the system that’s perfectly legit: Interlibrary loans.

After amalgamation of the various Toronto municipalities circa 1998, the Toronto Public Library really began to live up to its name. The entire system was one giant repository of books you could request. But you actually have access to dozens of other libraries in Canada and, potentially, elsewhere.

Three books with yellow interloan bands running down the covers

Three current interloans: Design for Democracy, Saskatchewan: Uncommon Views, and British or American English? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns

Can’t find a book at TPL? Or can you find it only at the Reference Library or on another reference shelf? And is it not too new? Then you can request it via interlibrary loan. It’s that simple.

I think I’ve been using interloans since August 2006 and have received over 60 books this way – everything from a 1941 edition of a typography book to a a $200 box set on camouflage. I’ve flipped through rare and costly photography titles. I’ve received humour, architecture, and linguistics books. I have a project underway to read every remotely plausible book on graphic design in the library; every book I cannot find I request via interloan. [They’re all marked as (interloan) on my reading list.]

I receive about one out of every seven requests I make in all categories (about 66 out of 354). Why so few? I insist on free loans. If you aren’t that picky, you can pay the remote library’s costs, which could be $20 or much more. I choose not to, which limits the available supply. In principle you can apply to borrow even compact discs and movies via interloan, but few libraries send those out, and none, in my experience, sends them out for free. (I couldn’t get my hands on the Rhino Records Disco Box, for example.)

I’ve gotten books from many university libraries (typically Queen’s), from libraries in podunk towns in Ontario (who evidently have wider tastes than one would expect), from the federal government, and from nearby libraries in the 905.

In theory every branch can place an interloan (even Urban Affairs with its noncirculating on-site collection), and I’ve seen interloans on the shelf even at small branches like St. Lawrence. I particularly like the idea that a book comes in from out of town and gets sent to whatever little branch I specify. How’s that for service?

The process

The process is straight out of the 1970s. Ostensibly you have to ask a librarian to fill out a rather ugly paper form, which they then send via internal mail or fax to the interloans department in the bowels of the Reference Library. This leaves a great deal to be desired, and librarians, in my experience, occasionally act like it’s a tremendous imposition on their time. They complain that they have to check the book in the TPL catalogue and on Amazon before they can do anything.

Some librarians go one step further and give you attitude if you try to use this service “too often.” They never actually use that phrase, and a frequency of too often is never defined, but these librarians seem to believe that interloans should pretty much never be used, and if they are used, you get one go and that’s it.

I show up with 30 requests at a time and this freaks people out. Or it used to. After many hiccups (and I do mean many) at two different branches, we’ve got the system down to a science. I think you should not be the least bit shy about using interloans.

Nonetheless, the whole process needs to be computerized. There’s one school of thought in the library that holds that anyone should be able to place an interloan as easily as they place a TPL hold. I don’t agree with that. There has to be a way to force people to verify that TPL doesn’t have the book, plus you have to build in disincentives for preteens and other pranksters to spam the system. My suggestion: Make it possible to place an interloan via computer, but you have to do it on a computer at a library branch.

It can take a couple of weeks or many months to get your book – or you may never get it. There’s a quota system in place whose details are a well-guarded secret; if I understand it correctly, they try to put through one request per person per day. So it doesn’t help to be in a rush, because these are galactic timescales we’re dealing with here.

Farm team

My big question is: Why doesn’t TPL treat interloan requests as a kind of farm team that gives clues as to the items people want that the library doesn’t already have? As a kind of consumer intel for new acquisitions, you might say?


(2009.04.08)    I got another lecture that included yet another set of contradictions of previous rules of procedure. I’m tired of being made to feel unwelcome for using the interloan service, and, in a microcosm of the foregoing, I am also tired of being made to feel unwelcome at Jones for using interloans.


Disgrace? Hardly

Last week, one G. LaMarsh wrote the following letter to Now:

Now that it seems those big-box bullies have been vanquished, residents of Leslieville/South Riverdale may finally direct their energies elsewhere – perhaps to the question of what new services and businesses we could welcome into the neighbourhood.

How about a student massage or shiatsu clinic? Or perhaps a new library building to replace the disgrace at Dundas and Jones?

Hold the phone, sister. Jones is a tidy rectangular prism with a rusticated exterior, not a “disgrace.” So I wrote a letter of my own, dutifully unpublished later published:

I don’t know what’s gotten into G. LaMarsh, whose letter last week called the Jones library a “disgrace.” It’s actually one of the many unremarked Modernist buildings scattered across the city, featuring stone exterior walls, a brand-new floor, and skylights. You can walk there from pretty much anywhere in Leslieville, the bus stops kitty-corner, and you can park your bike (or car) right on the premises.

And if none of that works for LaMarsh, note that the east end is replete with library branches; Queen-Saulter and Riverdale are within walking distance, while Pape and Gerrard-Ashdale are easy transit rides away.

You want to see a dump of a library branch? Try Northern District at Yonge & Eg. By comparison Leslieville’s doing pretty well.

And incidentally, a library that serves everyone is obviously a higher priority than a twee massage clinic for pampered housewives. If that’s the alternative, if that’s the choice we face, if that is the battle to be joined – well, we’re winning, aren’t we?

Fun facts

From a TPL budget document (PDF):

  • The 2009 budget rings in at $175,777,400. Running 99 branches is not, apparently, cheap.
  • What’s the 100th branch gonna be? Well, the cat’s out of the bag: West Waterfront, AKA Waterfront Neighbourhood (a $7.42 million project [PDF]). Where is it located, exactly?
  • They’ve got 29 million items on shelves.
  • The library Web site gets 21 million hits a year.
  • There are 1,185,500 “registered borrowers.” The population of Toronto per se is only 2,503,281, so that means just under half the people of Toronto have library cards.
  • “Total activity has increased 46.7%” from 1999 to 2007.
  • “Holds filled have increased by 186.5%”; “books reserved have increased by 156.2%.” That’s because now it is easier than ever to sit at home and cruise through the entire library catalogue, placing holds on whatever seems remotely interesting. (Before the Web catalogue existed, I used to do the same thing via modem. Oldschool.)

The news isn’t all good. They’re losing $345,000 from their acquisitions budget for 2009. And they’re also planning on delivering items to branches once a day instead of twice, though I’d like to know how the very small branches were ever getting twice-daily deliveries in the first place and how huge district libraries are going to get by with only one. Jones Library may need only one delivery, while Northern District may need three.

3 × 3 at the Browsery

Here’s a semi-secret tip for people who are in a big rush to get their hands on recent books but need a long time to read them.

Ordinarily you have to put your name on the holds list for a new book, or for any item that somebody else is already using. For very popular titles, the holds list stretches to infinity.

I just checked the Harry Potter books, thinking those would be obvious examples, and found about 170 copies each and fewer than ten holds. The Associate by John Grisham has 415 copies and 780 holds, which won’t translate into a huge wait. All right, so maybe the problem isn’t as bad as I thought.

In fact, the real problem might be new books of which the library has one or two copies. Put 30 people on the list for those and you’re waiting the better part of a year (assuming full three-week loans for each copy, which won’t always be the case).

What’s the solution? The Browsery. That’s the non-obvious name for the ground-floor sections at the Toronto Reference Library (TRL) and the North York Central Library (CL). Many items there (all of them at TRL) cannot be requested via holds. You can’t put a hold on them. But they’re sitting right there on the shelf. (You can use the online catalogue to check the list of library holdings for the title you want; look for Browsery at either of those branches. Or just drop by and paw through what’s there.)

Because nobody can place a hold on them, once you’ve checked out a Browsery item it’s all yours for as long as the borrowing period might be. With renewals, that’s nine weeks for a book or CD and three weeks for a DVD. If it’s a low-demand item, you can return it after those nine or three weeks and check it out again for another nine or three weeks.

The downside? You absolutely have to visit in person. It’s like an oldschool library: You have to go there to check out the book.

Beating the system? Not quite. That’s how the system is set up. Use it!