Rebecca Turpin, who works in our Document Supply Team, tells us how social distancing has brought the international library community closer together, going above and beyond to keep supplying the material staff and students need for their work.

Where it all began

It’s safe to say the beginnings of interlibrary lending didn’t have too successful a start. In the mid 1630s Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc, a French humanist requested that some manuscripts were loaned between the Royal Library in Paris and the Vatican. His request was denied. It wasn’t for another 240 years until interlibrary lending came into practice and even then some held reservations, with one librarian stating “Some hesitation must be felt in developing a new idea”. Of course new ideas are exactly what the document supply service at Leeds have had to devise during the Covid19 lockdown.

Our Document Supply service finds material for anyone in the University who requests items that are not available in one of our libraries. It is an essential service for our staff and students, enabling them to get hold of the information they need for their work and research. We are also an important supplier to other institutions for their customers.

We supply and borrow a variety of items – books, articles, journals, microfilms, music scores, even scanned Special Collections material (within conservation boundaries). Our team regularly deals with over 400 requests each month. We’ve borrowed items from New Zealand, Brazil and Israel, and with the extensive collection held at Leeds we’ve lent to institutions in six out of the seven continents, including the Polar Institute in Norway.

Challenging times

Towards the end of March when it became apparent that the university campus would have to close, we knew that the document supply service would have to adjust to a new way of working. The team had never worked from home before and this presented new challenges to overcome prior to supplying and requesting items – would the library management system work remotely? Would we individually have the necessary equipment to keep the service running from our kitchen tables?

We could no longer access our substantial print collections to supply to other institutions, neither could we request print items for our customers. We have therefore had to turn to digital collections, mindful of copyright and publisher guidelines. We have supplied 162 article and book chapter requests to other institutes (with a turnaround time of under 3 hours), and fulfilled more than 110 requests for our own customers. In addition, 60 requests were found available locally for Leeds users and 20 more requests were passed on to our Acquisitions Team for possible ebook purchase.

International helping hands

Although the UK document supply service was up and running successfully, internationally, many universities struggled to keep their own document supply services running. Some services couldn’t operate with home-working or faced copyright regulations that meant they couldn’t supply items digitally. At the same time, with their own print resources unavailable, customers needed document supply more than ever. How could we help each other at this time?

An answer came from the document delivery and resource sharing committee of IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions). They asked librarians to volunteer to provide a free of charge service. IFLA created a special request form and spreadsheet that all volunteers could access. This opens up many library collections that may not normally be searched. If the material is found, it is sent electronically to the requesting university.

Leading the way

We were the first UK university library to get involved with this new initiative. We have supplied more than 68 articles and book chapters to help researchers both nationally and internationally. Some institutions we have worked with before, but others were new such as the Bibiloteca CESC (Columbia) and the American University of Beirut.

We are now able to use the scheme for our own customers as different countries begin to come out of lockdown. We are sending requests made at the start of lockdown to try to obtain the material they need.

One example of going above and beyond to help others comes from Illinois, USA. One of our undergraduate finalists required an article for their dissertation, but the journal had no online sources. Our international librarian hero from the University of Illinois went to their closed campus, scanned the article and sent it to us electronically, so our student got the material they needed.

At home and away

Even though we are working individually from home we feel we have adapted to this new challenge. We are supportive of each other and still able to work closely as a team and as part of the wider document supply community. The document supply service has always been about resource sharing and collaboration, both nationally and internationally, but lately worldwide seems to have become much closer to home.

Rebecca’s dog Luna helping her work from home, looking at a tablet computer with a document supply request on it