The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
Today’s online resources offer access to information that was undreamed of only a couple of decades ago. For a century or more, each library has maintained a catalog that provides an index to its holdings. In order to determine if a particular library had information of interest, individuals have always needed to visit the library in person to look through the thousands of index cards, typically arranged in alphabetical order by title, topic, and author’s name. That was expensive, especially if it was not a local library. Travel to a library hundreds of miles away, perhaps thousands of miles, simply is not practical for most people.
A few libraries did offer “look up by mail” services. That is, you could write a letter to the library staff and ask them to look in the library’s card catalog for you. Look up by mail has always been slow and somewhat expensive. The person making the request typically has to supply a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the reply. The expenses of two-way postage plus purchase of envelopes can add up quickly when sending requests to hundred of libraries!
In the early days of libraries, a personal visit to the library was required in order to view the desired materials. However, interlibrary loan was a huge improvement. A book or other item of interest could be “borrowed” by one library from another library that had the desired item in its collection. Interlibrary loan started in the 1880s as a small effort by a few cooperating libraries in California but did not become popular nationwide until the 1970s and remains popular today. If available, the library that holds a requested item will often lend the item to the requesting library. The person who wishes to see the item then may visit the borrowing library that is, in most cases, close to home.
Interlibrary loan has worked well and continues to work well today, with several significant exceptions. For instance, some books, bound journals, and one-of-a-kind manuscripts, are non-circulating, meaning that they may not be borrowed. In my experience, the non-circulating items seem to include a lot of genealogy books that I want to read. Other items that may not leave the holding library premises often include maps, hand-written or typed manuscripts, multi-volume books (including encyclopedias), any item of significant value, and most reference materials. Unfortunately, many of the non-circulating materials are of interest to genealogists who live thousands of miles away from the library that holds the material.
Technology, primarily computers and the Internet, has changed all that today. It is now possible to search more than two billion electronic “library cards” in seconds, anytime of the day or night, even when dressed in pajamas without leaving home. You can perform those searches from any Internet-connected desktop, laptop, or handheld computer. It works well with iPhone, iPad, and Android mobile devices.
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