Chapter 1: An introduction to global resource sharing – Global Resource Sharing


An introduction to global resource sharing


In this chapter, a definition for the term ‘global resource sharing’ is given. An introduction to the major themes and organization of the book, as well as its intent and design, are provided.

Key words

global resource sharing

international interlibrary loan


access to information



Global resource sharing is an idea whose time has come. Of interest to librarians around the world, the capacity to borrow and lend materials across air, land and sea appears to be more within reach today than at any time in the recent and more distant past. Cooperation and interdependence, at least amongst libraries, has created an environment whereby national borders seem far less important than the need to share information. Although a true world library does not yet exist, the foundations for such a structure have been and are continuing to be built. As an increasing number of library records and holdings become visible to information seekers, the discovery of information appears to be nearly effortless. At the same time, technologies that automate request and transmission functions have also improved significantly, removing many of the obstacles that limited access to information in the past.

Before going any further, let us begin with a definition for the phrase ‘global resource sharing’. For libraries and other information agencies, the expression can have different meanings and connotations. In a broad context, it frequently suggests both cooperative collection development and interlibrary loan. For the purposes of this book, the term will more specifically be used when referring to the second critical element of resource sharing: interlibrary lending. Throughout this book the terms resource sharing, interlibrary loan, ILL, document supply, interlending, document delivery and information delivery service (IDS) will be used interchangeably. As was pointed out more than 15 years ago, interlending is generally neither just a loan nor only between libraries (Baker and Jackson, 1995). For ease of reference and variety in writing, however, when the authors use the terms global resource sharing and the related international interlibrary loan and document supply, we are referring to the transfer of materials, in a variety of format types, among libraries and other suppliers in response to users’ needs, regardless of where the library, information supplier or user is located.

Why global resource sharing? Why now? The idea and practice of sharing materials is certainly not a new or radical one for libraries to consider. These institutions have always known that no library could or would own every item ever published. Even before the massive, comprehensive collections of the world’s great libraries were built and far ahead of the publication explosion of the late 20th century, the notion of sharing materials when ownership was not an option was discussed. For many years, the mechanisms to do this were excessively slow and expensive to negotiate. Early attempts at interlibrary lending, both domestic and foreign, were frequently and sometimes spectacularly unsuccessful. It was simply faster, easier and cheaper for a library to purchase what it could for its own collection or to advise individual scholars to travel to the physical location where material was held. During this time, interlibrary borrowing and lending was very much a ‘back room’ operation, a supplementary and nearly invisible service, intended for and used by only the most serious researchers.

Several factors, beginning in the 1970s and continuing today, resulted in a drastic modification in the theory and practice of resource sharing and library service, not only in the United States but around the globe. The increase in publication worldwide, dramatically rising costs especially for serials, and radically reduced acquisitions budgets all worked to bring ILL, a previously auxiliary library service under the ownership model, to the forefront. By providing a means to access materials that libraries were no longer able to afford to purchase for their own collections, the information and research expectations of their primary clientele could be met.

Both the problem of access and its solution appeared to arrive nearly simultaneously. Declining budgets necessitated access as a replacement for ownership as the dominant model for library collections and services at the same time as supporting and enabling technologies came along to make that possible. National and regional union catalogs, union lists of serials, MARC catalog records, bibliographic utilities and databases made discovery of information in non-affiliated collections less painless. Telecommunication and duplication tools also made request and retrieval simpler.

Later technological improvements, including the development of online catalogs, the Internet and the World Wide Web, desktop computers, document scanners, and transmission systems such as email and Ariel, and specialized ILL software, along with increased expectations by information seekers, further pushed interlending into a vanguard position for fulfilling patron requests when the local collection could not. Resource sharing in general and international ILL in particular, became less a series of unrelated, manually negotiated steps in an intricate dance between requestor and potential lender and more an increasingly automated process from discovery to delivery.

Even with this revolutionary shift in philosophy and technology, finding library materials in other collections was still neither simple nor easy. Nearly a decade ago, Mary Jackson listed these major challenges to international resource sharing:

how libraries discover holdings and the format of those holdings; how ILL staff determine whether a library will lend internationally; the method of sending and receiving ILL requests in a format that is readable and understandable to both parties; the high cost of physical delivery and lack of universal electronic delivery; and finally, the difficulties with payment and the high costs of exchange currencies. (Jackson, 2004: 91)

Nearly ten years later, this picture has changed. Today, information seekers all over the world are able to search for and discover information on any subject from a single web-based interface. The OCLC product WorldCat currently contains billions of title and holdings records, in more than 480 language sets. Mass digitization projects by national libraries, universities, consortia, and commercial agencies further broaden the depth and breadth of information that is visible to anyone with an Internet connection. This abundance and awareness of the riches the world’s libraries have to offer has also amplified demand for access to those materials. For the information seeker who has discovered a document from the convenience and ease of his or her own web browser, the physical location of the source has little importance.

Even with massive catalog and holding record loads, enormous digitization efforts, wider acceptance or adoption of international standards, work practices and communication and transmission technologies, not all the problems of global access to information have been resolved. Despite the impression of increased interoperability and interconnectness; despite improved telecommunication and transmission technologies that have eradicated some of the barriers of distance and time, retrieval and delivery of requested international materials remains a significant problem for libraries worldwide. As David Atkins (2010: 72) has pointed out, for most libraries, ‘the ease of discovery belies the difficulty of delivery.’ The problems of discoverability have been replaced by the far more significant ones of retrieval and delivery.

Other issues, many of them longstanding, continue to plague international efforts to share library resources and collections. The not inconsequential costs of the service, language differences, copyright issues, lack of a cooperative tradition, inadequate collections, poor funding support, institutional reluctance or resistance, complicated workflow and insufficient staffing levels, incompatible technologies and declining budgets are just a few of the hurdles that face both new and seasoned librarians interested in global resource sharing.

International interlibrary loan has come a long way since the first early attempts to share library material across geographic and political boundaries. Over the course of the past few years, the vast storehouse of the world’s published knowledge has become more visible and findable than at any time in the recorded past. Automation and other technologies have made request and delivery of material easier and faster than ever before. The sheer volume of transactions that are successfully negotiated every day by librarians and information professionals all over the world would astound the early pioneers.

At the same time, few libraries are equipped to handle the increase in information and demand for it. Citations are still incomplete, inaccurate, and difficult to verify. It is still a time-consuming process to identify where an item might be held and under what conditions it may be lent. Physical delivery of items is slow and the risk of loss or damage of the items remains a critical impediment to service. Electronic delivery is fast but not cheap. Local policies, uncertainty about copyright and licensing, and declining budgets place a further strain on a library’s ability to borrow and lend internationally.

To succeed at global resource sharing today, a librarian, like his/her predecessors must still answer these questions: What is it? Who has it? Is it available? Is it available to me? In what format? How will it be delivered? Where will it be delivered? How quickly? For how long? At what cost? (Davidson, 2009: 64). The librarian who would like to become actively engaged in global resource sharing must be a risk taker – willing and able to take the time to look for holdings in both the easy and the hard places, to set up reciprocal agreements, to negotiate costs for patrons by identifying what is good, fast and cheap, and to strongly advocate for increased access to information no matter where it is located or in what format.

Although this is not easy work, it is among the most rewarding for a librarian or information professional. The delight an information seeker expresses when they have in their hands some essential piece of information they perhaps were not sure existed and never really expected to see makes the effort of finding and retrieving it worthwhile. To get to that place requires commitment, patience, flexibility and creativity and it is for these dedicated individuals that this book is written. We hope this book will give you the background you need to introduce, manage, sustain or extend global resource sharing to your own setting.

Intent and design of the book

The book is intended to help librarians and others, especially those who may be new to the profession or the functional unit of interlibrary loan and document supply. Some of the topics covered are:

 The history of resource sharing and international interlibrary loan

 Tips on streamlining a complex workflow

 Strategies for effective borrowing and lending on an international scale

 Trends to be aware of and watch out for

 Discussion of barriers and obstacles

 How other countries view and carry out international ILL

 Day to day processing

 Possible futures

 Ways to network, get involved, advocate for support

 Best practices.

We begin the book with an overview of international borrowing and lending. The next chapter outlines a brief history of interlending, while Chapter 3 provides an outline of current issues, organized along political, economic, social and technological lines, along with a discussion of various strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that are inherent to the practice of global resource sharing. The practical aspects of current international ILL work, including suppliers, inputs, processes, outputs, and customers are addressed in detail in Chapter 4. In Chapter 5, we delve into the results of a survey the authors conducted to assess current international ILL practices around the world. Chapter 6 provides selected case studies and the book concludes with a look into an unpredictable but exciting future and a call to action. Preserving the principles and practices of universal access and availability of information and knowledge is what global resource sharing is all about and the time to do that is now. Finally, following the glossary section of frequently cited terms, readers will find an exhaustive bibliography.

Although every attempt has been made to internationalize the viewpoint of the research and findings, we must note that the authors are all academic librarians, working at small to large research universities in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. We have strived to be inclusive in our thinking and writing, but recognize that despite these efforts, the result is heavily skewed towards an English-speaking and North American perspective. We know that the tradition of and support for ILL, along with the collections, budgets, and technologies we enjoy are not the norm for the rest of the world. We sincerely hope that we have been sensitive to this imbalance.

In the process of writing this book, we learned more than we knew before about the workings of libraries around the world, which has informed us in our own daily ILL practices. We have tried here to pass this new-found knowledge along to our readers. In no way do we mean to portray the resource sharing practices and policies we are most familiar with as the only or best way of cooperating on a global scale. Instead, we hope that we have presented at least a reflection on what is common and what is distinct about different systems and how this might be useful to librarians in other countries. Our goal was to take a snapshot of international ILL – with all its successes, failures, efforts and challenges as it exists at this unique moment in time.


Atkins, David P. Going Global: Examining Issues and Seeking Collaboration for International Interlending, the View from the US. Interlending & Document Supply. 2010; 38(no. 2):72–75.

Baker, Shirley K., Jackson, Mary E. The Future of Resource Sharing. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press; 1995.

Davidson, Edward, K. How Close Are We to Having a Global “Get It For Me” Service? Interlending & Document Supply. 2009; 37(2):64–67.

Jackson, Mary. The Future of Interlending. Interlending & Document Supply. 2004; 32(2):88–93.