ILL and Collection Development on a Tight Budget

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With the economy the way it is has been over the past year or so a lot of libraries have turned back to ILL as an alternative to shrinking book-buying budgets. I wonder if this is really working the way we want it to.

In the most recent study I could find about the cost for mediated ILL transactions the Association of Research Libraries showed that the average cost of ILL is about $27.00 USD. $17 for the borrowing library and $10 for the lending library. Even if we eliminate the lending library costs, $17 could purchase a fair amount of titles, especially popular but not necessarily brand-new ones.

If the study done in 2002 on patron-driven collection development can be duplicated in other libraries, 68% of titles requested through ILL which were purchased received at least one more use (see  Anderson, et al). In this study, the librarians limited their pilot to scholarly non-fiction titles (Anderson 10). Presumably popular reading titles would see even more usage which could be of particular interest to public libraries who are active ILL participants.

There can be even more benefit to ILL in cases where the borrowing library is requesting a title that they own but all copies are checked out. ILL and holds/recall operations really should work together. Some colleagues of mine and I have been looking at the holds queues in relation to ILL requests. In many instances it is more cost-effective to purchase another copy of a title to offset existing holds rather than spend money on ILL for the title. These kinds of items usually have a large usage potential automatically as is evident by the extended holds queues for local copies. Why spend $27 for one use when you could spend a comparable amount and get 10s if not 100s of uses?

If an item costs the same as an ILL request, purchasing it will at the very least be the same cost-per-use as ILL. But if it circulates even one more time, the borrowing library copy now effectively is 25% of the cost-per-use of ILL. Ordering the book twice through ILL would be almost $60 but if it was purchased once ($30), then used again, the cost-per-use drops to $15. For really popular items the holds queue essentially guarantees several uses, which would bring the cost-per-use down to mere cents instead of dollars.

If a library is not worried about shelf space it makes more sense economically to not ILL items which are popular–purchasing another copy or two for local users is potentially much cheaper in the long run.

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2 Responses to ILL and Collection Development on a Tight Budget

  1. Eric Robinson says:

    Certainly if you can purchase a book for cheaper then you can borrow it you should be – that is a given. The IDS Project is a good example of this. But your ideas seem to ignore the heavy use of LVIS and reciprocal agreements that do exist amongst public and academic libraries. Especially in research libraries the use of these agreements, or even one time purchases, easily offset the cost of low use journal runs.
    The ARL report is not only old, but it seems to ignore the use of ‘free’ lenders.

  2. Gerrit says:


    You are right, this does not address consortial partnerships or individual reciprocal agreements explicitly, but, although the ARL report is old, I assumed that these sorts of agreements were factored into their metrics. Otherwise the cost for mediated borrowing would be much higher since most for-fee institutions charge more than just a few dollars to lend. In other words, the only way the cost would be $7 or so above staffing is if free libraries were taken into consideration. The figure would instead be perhaps twice that since shipping costs and lending fees both would not be recovered. Do you know of a more up-to-date report on costs? The ARL report was the best I could find, as I stated in the post. I would love to see a newer report.

    You mention using partner libraries but even these libraries–those we use the most heavily because they are free–cannot lend these kinds of books since their users also have a high demand. Frequently these requests go unfilled because the lenders all have long local holds queues also.

    Again, the rationale here is not just to reduce cost, but to get the book. In the end, if the book is purchased it is more likely to be used again, thereby reducing overall cost-per-use.
    Certainly we could save money by simply canceling a request because other libraries are unwilling or unable to fill it. But wouldn’t we rather get the book for the patron?
    If another “free” library does fill it, who is to say we could fill the request again from a free library the next time it is requested? Most these popular or new items do get requested again. At that point, where is our cost savings? If we had purchased it, the cost-per-use would be significantly lower.
    On the other hand, we could just cancel all requests unless we can fill through a free lender…but then again, wouldn’t we rather get the book for our patron, even if it does cost money?
    If the answer is yes, the best way to save money is not to go through ILL but to purchase, with the statistical support that the book will at least see one more use.

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