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.