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Library Technology, the Internet, and Interlibrary Loan

Updated on May 15, 2014
WVitanyi profile image

William has written five books, on topics ranging from technological fiction to office humor, and is the owner of Bayla Publishing.

The Edinboro University of Pennsylvania Baron Forness Library.
The Edinboro University of Pennsylvania Baron Forness Library.

Libraries Lead

In today's world research occurs at the speed of a click, as search engines electronically peruse the interconnected universe to glean any tidbit of relevant minutia in a matter of seconds. The repository of information is the world, its infrastructure fiber and chips. But this information capability existed well before the invention of the Internet and the World Wide Web. In fact, although it was a much slower process and did not encompass nearly the quantity of information that is available today, thanks to libraries this basic capability predated the Internet by nearly one hundred years.

Which Was the First Library?

There are various claims as to which was the first official American public library. Certainly there were collections of books, some available for lending as early as the sixteen hundreds, and a number of towns and cities, and even parishes, maintained lending libraries from as early as the seventeen hundreds. Suffice it to say, the concept of the public library had early origins in America, even before America was a country. The public library as an institution of the town or city blossomed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century in America.

Library of Congress Main Reading Room
Library of Congress Main Reading Room | Source

The Library of Congress

The ultimate American library, the Library of Congress, was established in 1800 as a reference library for the legislature, but the rather small collection was consumed by flames in 1814 when the British burned the Capitol Building, where the library was housed. Shortly thereafter the collection was replaced by the impressive personal library of retired President Thomas Jefferson. The library underwent massive growth as a result of the copyright law of 1870, which required copyright applicants to provide the Library of Congress with two copies of their work. The resultant deluge of materials necessitated a new building, which took almost a quarter of a century to complete. It opened to the public on November 1, 1897.

Coincidentally, it was around this same time, in 1894, that the functional precursor to the World Wide Web was born. It was in this year that the University of California, Berkeley, initially in partnership with the California State Library, started the first interlibrary loan program in the US.

What is Interlibrary Loan?

Interlibrary loan allows a user of one library to obtain materials from another library, with the library of the user serving as the requestor. For example, if my library in Boston does not currently possess a copy of a specific book that I need, but a library in Chicago does, my Boston library can obtain that book from the Chicago library for me, which I can borrow for a prescribed period of time. My Boston library handles the details of the transaction, including finding a library that actually has the item that I need, and generally there is a minimal or no charge. Most libraries today have this capability.

The significance of interlibrary loan is that virtually any published information held by a library somewhere can be available to a local library patron with very little effort. In fact, the local librarian can even determine which other library owns the needed material.

Libraries and Technology

For the technically inclined, the parallel between interlibrary loan and the Internet would have the user's local library in the role of requesting computer, the librarian as a search engine, the U.S. mail as a packet-switched (though not-so-redundant) delivery network, and the library providing the content as the host server. Throw in a minimal charge for services provided in the role of ISP, and the metaphor works. The difference is speed and convenience, and of course, availability of a much broader variety of content.

Not Even Close.

The Library of Congress today contains over 150 million items, including books, music, legal documents, and other items in numerous languages, and they also participate in interlibrary loan. Many materials not available locally may be available through the Library of Congress through their interlibrary loan program. It would seem that despite the speed and convenience of the Internet, sometimes real beats virtual, but regardless, interlibrary loan beat the Internet.

By a hundred years.



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    • WVitanyi profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Edinboro, Pennsylvania

      Thanks so much for your comment Alex. Humanity rules!

    • Alex Mathews profile image

      Alex Mathews 

      5 years ago from United States

      Very interesting! Love your writing!


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