Libraries in Cahoots

Libraries in Cahoots

by Anessa Olson

The Ames Public Library has almost 400,000 items in a variety of formats.  That’s a lot.  But no library can contain everything, so odds are good that sometime in your life you’ll want something that we don’t have. Fortunately, we aren’t limited to our own resources.  Libraries all across the country work together, lending and borrowing materials from each other on behalf of their patrons in a process called inter-library loan, or ILL. 

For you, the ILL process is very simple.  Just fill out our request form, available on our website here:  You can also give us a call at 515-239-5646 or stop by and talk to us and we will place the request for you.  Then, just sit back and relax until your materials arrive!  

Behind the scenes, the ILL process has several stages.  First, new items aren’t eligible for ILL, so materials that are less than a year old are considered for purchase instead.  Requests are sorted and sent to the librarian who manages that section, who determines whether or not to purchase the item in accordance with our collection management policy (  If the librarian decides to buy it, you will be added to the holds list as soon as it arrives.  If not, we will contact you and let you know so that you can resubmit your request when the item is old enough to be eligible for ILL. 

If the item isn’t new, we search for a lender.  We belong to two different ILL systems, one for Iowa and one nationwide. We can search for an item and see which member libraries have it. We always ask the closest libraries first. We will also create a temporary record in your account that shows the status of your request.  The “inactive” status means that we are still searching for a library to lend us the item. 

We will ask up to fifteen libraries, but if none are able to lend the item, we will let you know, and you are welcome to try again in six months. Most often, the items we aren’t able to get are ones that can’t be checked out, or that aren’t available in the U.S. (we can’t ship internationally.)  Although we do not, some libraries charge a fee to borrow their items through the ILL system, or place restrictions like not allowing the item out of a library building.  We will contact you about any fees or restrictions on your materials.

When an item arrives, we add a temporary barcode to it so that we can check it out to you like a regular item. We may also create a paper sleeve to protect the cover, and it is important to leave that sleeve in place.  For old books, we may also add a “fragile” label to let you know to be extra careful and to return it directly to the desk.  When we have it ready, the status in your account will read “received/held,” and we’ll contact you to pick it up!  You can keep most items for three weeks just like regular checkouts, although renewals are at the discretion of the lending library. When you’re done, you can return it to us and we will ship it back. 

Each stage of this process takes time, so it can take up to six weeks for your item to arrive. But given a little time, we can, and do, get items from all over the country.  Last year, we borrowed 1,975 items, including a 1916 first edition of a memoir written by a World War I nurse, and every single season of the show “Wagon Train.”  We also loaned 2,662 of our own items to other libraries.  So don’t be discouraged if we don’t have the materials you want.  We will work with libraries all over the country to get it for you anyway!