Genealogy 101: Family History Research & InterLibrary Loan

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega describes what InterLibrary Loan is, and how it can help with your family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

What is genealogy and what types of resources are used to search for family members? Genealogy is tracing the lines of your ancestors and their descendants using various forms of documentation, one of which is books. Genealogists use books. We use them to find information about our ancestors, to learn about their historical time period, and to enhance our research skills. Unfortunately, the books we need aren’t always available at our local library. Unless you live close to a large city library, academic institution, or a major genealogy library, chances are you’ve had the need for a book that you didn’t have access to.

What’s one option for acquiring that resource? Interlibrary Loan. But like all good things, there can be limitations. Before we address those, let’s first talk about what InterLibrary Loan is.

InterLibrary Loan

InterLibrary Loan should be a popular system for the genealogist. In reality, it’s popular among all readers. “The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), which maintains WorldCat, reported 280 million ILL requests since the organization began in 1967, including 6.9 million in 2018 alone.”*

So, what is InterLibrary Loan? Simply put, it’s the ability to borrow a book, microfilm, or even a photocopy of a periodical article from your library that is provided by another library that owns the item. The way this loan works is that you request the item from your local library that participates in the program, and they request it from another library that has the material you need.

Sounds easy, right? Well, in theory it is – but it has limitations and it doesn’t work the same at every library. First, not every library participates. For example, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, is not a circulating library and does not participate in InterLibrary Loan. A call to my city library also confirmed that they don’t participate. Some libraries may not choose to participate for such reasons as cost, and it’s typically a service that is lost to budget cuts. Calling and verifying your library’s participation is important.

Here’s another limitation: to request an item, your library may require you to fill out a form and pay any associated fees. I did have some friends report that they can make their requests from the library’s website, saving time.

The InterLibrary Loan service may have a cost. When I polled my Facebook friends about their local libraries, answers about the cost for InterLibrary Loan ranged from free to a small per-item charge starting at $3 which is collected when the item is requested or when it is received (so if it is never received, there is no charge). At a library in my neighboring city, the base fee for InterLibrary Loan was $5 and then there was a charge for shipping and “staff time” which could be different depending on the item. Another larger city library in Southern California charges a $10 non-refundable fee.

Once the item arrives, typically a book or microfilm, you may or may not be able to take it home. This restriction is most likely placed by the owning library. They may require you to use the item only at your library, or they will allow you to check it out but only for a short amount of time like two weeks, without the ability to renew. In the case of microfilm, my experience has been that you are only able to use it in-house. In one case where I requested a microfilm from our state library, they called and asked what I needed and made copies from the microfilm and sent them to me.

Also, remember that a lot of items we genealogists love are reference books and those don’t circulate – which means that you cannot request them through InterLibrary Loan. A search for the item on WorldCat will help you to determine if it’s a circulating item at any library.

InterLibrary Loan Isn’t Perfect

What can you do if InterLibrary Loan won’t work for you? There are other options you could try.

One tip that a librarian gave me was to always check WorldCat first, before you make the request. This is a good idea to help you learn what other repositories might have the item. You may find that a neighboring library has the item and have a good excuse to go visit that library and their collection.

When you search WorldCat, if you notice a library near you has the item, consider calling them and inquiring if they participate in InterLibrary Loan. That can save you money if your library charges a non-refundable fee.

Photo: WorldCat
Photo: WorldCat

I can tell you from my own experience that many of the books I have needed were available from a local state university. I can InterLibrary Loan those books from a local library at $10 a book. But for $40 I was able to join the university’s alumni organization and receive library check-out privileges. Similar programs may exist that provide academic library cards for community members which can range from free to over $100 a year. Because this academic library isn’t too far, I’ve often elected to just check them out there.

If your library is part of a larger library network (mine is part of a county library system), make sure to see if any one of the other libraries in the system owns the item. Most likely it can be delivered to your home library free of charge. My library’s catalog allows a search to be restricted to just one library or to all of the county libraries. I change that setting depending if I need something right now or if I can wait.

If what you need is an older item, check to see if it is available on a digitized book website such as GoogleBooks, Internet Archive, or Hathi Trust.

Have You Used InterLibrary Loan?

Interlibrary Loan is a great tool – but it doesn’t always work for what you need. But what’s important is to see what it can do to help you with your research. Conduct a search on WorldCat for the place your ancestor lived to see what resources you’ve missed and then look to see if they are available via InterLibrary Loan.

* “InterLibrary Loan Will Change Your Life,” Literary Hub ( accessed 29 January 2020).

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