Can you rent/borrow books online anywhere?

Today there’s a thread going on AskMetafilter about Netflix for books. Many have chimed in promoting using the public library and ILL, but Mefite I EAT TAPAS is a detractor and currently has the final word:

Funny, here’s how the Inter-Library Loan process works in my city (which is a major urban center):

1) Check the web site to see if a book is available. The listing for the book appears. The library has multiple copies. The copies are labeled:

MISSING — the book has not been returned.
DUE M/D/Y — the book is due on a particular date. These dates are usually in the past. After a couple of years, it will be marked MISSING.
CHECK SHELF — this also means that the book is MISSING.

2) Use the online form to enter your library card, the book, and the branch you want the book to go to.
3) Nothing happens. Wait several months.
4) You notice that a book is now listed as CHECK SHELF at a local branch. Having lost faith in the ILL process, you try to visit that branch, but it is closed for the weekend to a local festival.
5) You run to that branch on the Thursday it’s actually open past 6pm, push through the barren shelves, and notice that the last remaining books are Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and a Sweet Valley High book from the 80s. The book is not on the shelf. The librarian shrugs and changes its status to MISSING.
6) You go home and order the book used off of Amazon for $.01 plus shipping.

I’m sure other people have library systems that actually work, but please don’t assume the poster is insane for wanting to use a commercial lender as an alternative. I’d be interested in a functional alternative to my local library myself.

I’ve been really interested lately in the fact that public libraries across the country (and world) each provide vastly different experiences. I can’t help but think that some consistency would do us good, but wow, how can that happen with the myriad factors that influence individual libraries?

7 thoughts on “Can you rent/borrow books online anywhere?”

  1. Quoting:

    “in the fact that public libraries across the country (and world) each provide vastly different experiences. I can’t help but think that some consistency would do us good, but wow, how can that happen”

    I’ve been part of several discussions on this point over the past years, and have always thought the answer lies in what I read about tennis some time ago:

    Amateur tennis players win by not making the mistakes their amateur opponents make; professional tennis players win by playing better and hitting winning shots.

    I believe many libraries are employing sub-standard practices they could correct if they paid attention to what was normal practice at the majority of libraries — i.e., stop making avoidable mistakes. Nothing heroic, just basic Library 101.

    How can that happen? Put together teams of 3 librarians from successful libraries who would visit those libraries that volunteered for an audit and makeover: one and a half days of observation and evaluation, one half day of internal team review and planning, and one day of presenting and planning recommended changes.

    Obviously you’d want to make sure a library was ready and willing, and was correctly positioned; you’d want to see some preparatory work, and as follow up, there would be some on-line post evaluation support.

    Would many librarians volunteer three days of vacation to do this? I imagine so. Would it be possible to structure it so there wasn’t much travel cost, and could a mechanism be found to fund it? Sure, I bet IMLS would bite.

    Could it be organized? Yes. Could it be organized to run efficiently, effectively and without a bureacracy of people who would want to meet to plan it to death? I truly doubt it, sad to say.

  2. What if every public library catalog provided an API? With detailed availability data, it would be straightforward to test at least some of EAT TAPAS’s claims — as well as being a good thing in itself.

    My (minor) pet peeve is the time books spend “in transit” during ILL. I’d love to see some data showing how long ILL books actually take to arrive.

    To Royce’s point, public library catalogs should include all of gutenberg.org, as well as other online resources, so a search would return those as well as physical books, with clickable links for direct access to the online resources.

    It’s true that public libraries and library systems vary enormously in the resources that are available to them, for both collections and building web sites, but local communities are smart enough to be able to interpret transparent performance data on their local library.

  3. Here in small town (3500 people) library world where technology is still trying to catch up, ILLs at our library work well. Of course, we are in Canada and we are indepentdent – not a branch – so those things may make a difference. Our process: You want a book; our library doesn’t have it; you fill in a PAPER form; our ILL librarian goes to the ends of the earth (not kidding – she once brought in a book from England for someone completeing a doctorate) to find said book; if she has trouble filling it, she calls you; she will keep trying until a) you receive the book b) you tell her to stop.

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