The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
The Birth of Interlibrary Loan, 1884

2014 October 6

Knowledge, as everyone knows, is power, and therefore accessibility of information is ultimately a political issue. Even in the case of abstruse scholarly material, ease of access has been a key issue throughout history. The Early Modern "scientific revolution" was succesful in part because it was international, and it was international not only because of the printing press but also because of the internationally circulated journals and transactions of the new learned societies. By the 1880s, however, neither these publications nor the open-access research libraries which stored their back numbers could meet the demands of the new era ...


Unsigned editorial. Science 4, 334 (1884). The author's words are in bold.

TO those who are obliged to use the libraries of our smaller colleges, it is often a source of vexation to find that the books one is referred to are wanting. The resources of the colleges are limited, and the amount of money which can be expended for the purchase of new books small, and that small amount often devoted, according to the wishes of the donor, to the class of books least needed. A case in point occurred lately, where a college professor of mathematics was asked to write a short account of the life of Todhunter ; and he felt obliged to say that he would be glad to undertake the article, but could not before he had visited the libraries of either New York or Boston, which he hoped to be able to do during his next vacation.

This constant lacking of just the books one needs for his work is most hampering. It is not the Century, or the Harper, or the latest novel, or the new book of travel, which cannot be had (these find their way into all the odd corners), but it is the specialist's books, a volume of the transactions of some learned society, a scientific journal, or the modern treatises on thermo-dynamics, on electricity, or on biology, which are needed, and which can be found only in a very few of our libraries in the necessary profusion.

A few such libraries have now been collected by our older scientific societies and our larger colleges. The books of the college libraries are for a specific purpose, and find abundant use at the hands of the students and professors. With the societies the matter stands differently.

It cannot be denied that one of the original objects of the establishment of these societies was, that, by the publication of their own "Proceedings," they might, by exchange, gather a collection of books which could not, in the then comparatively poor state of the country, be gathered in any other way, and which were to be for the use of the members, and such favored friends as they might designate.

It has so happened that these societies were established by the small knots of scientific men gathered about our larger colleges. These colleges have developed, and their libraries have grown more and more valuable ; so that the professors no longer find it necessary to go to their academy for books. At the same time the machinery of their long-established organization has grown more effective ; and, while many of the members no longer need their society collection of books, the number and value of those added to the shelves each year are constantly increasing. The result is, that in some of our larger cities there are accumulating very considerable libraries of special works which are scarcely used, as they are duplicated at some neighboring college about which those employing such books live.

It is, of course, with regret that one enters such a library, if library it may be called, and sees the new books which are not called for by the former clientage of the collection, but which would eagerly be asked for if the circle of favored outsiders were widened so as to include all properly vouched-for persons who might live within one, two, or three hundred miles, or even more, and who would be willing to pay a small annual fee to defray the expense of sending books to them by mail or express, and for the extra wear, and danger of loss. It is true that such books as could not be readily replaced in case of loss would necessarily be retained from such a wide-spread circulation ; but these would be only the older volumes of the various series, and such books as are very generally kept from such extra risks.

The expense of mailing would be considerable ; it would average, on volumes of the size of a bound volume of the American Journal of Science, about sixteen cents each way.

To this must be added the cost of handling, and some slight charge for the privilege of use. Altogether, the expense of taking out, say, forty books of this class in the course of the year would be in the neighborhood of ten to fifteen dollars, --- a charge which could be reduced very materially by sending for the books a number at a time, so that they might be forwarded to advantage by express ; the amount named above being the maximum if each book were mailed separately.

That the expense of using a library through the mails would mount up very rapidly is evident ; but the facts remain, that there are large libraries of books solely on matters of interest to scientific men, and of vital interest to such men, and that these libraries exist in communities where by duplication they no longer have their former use. It is highly desirable that the books should be put to use ; and their owners would probably be glad to arrange some plan by which the scheme of extending the circulation through the mails could be made practicable. It would be of great advantage in perfecting plans, if those who might be benefited would come forward and state their position.

The editorial provoked a number of letters. Those which Science published were all positive:

Science 4, 368 (1884)

I noticed in the last number of Science a proposition to render the libraries of the various scientific societies more useful by circulating the books somewhat by mail, among persons located in small towns.

If those having charge of those libraries knew what a blessed boon such an arrangement would be to a man situated as I have been for a few years, I am sure they would heartily second the proposition.

Colleges are often located in small towns, and are very poorly supplied with the means for scientific study or investigation. Professors in such institutions would be delighted with any arrangement, not involving very great expense, which would give them access in any way during term-time to a good scientific library. Would not some such arrangement as this be a wise one? --- Require a person wishing for the privilege of taking books from the library to give bond for a sum sufficient to meet all possible liabilities, and charge to his account all the actual expenses incident to packing and mailing or expressing books to him, and also any books not returned. Charge him, also, a small annual fee for the use of the books. In that case, he would pay only the actual expenses, and for the use of the books.

I earnestly hope our scientific societies may consider this question, and give to those of us who are isolated from the rest of the world, in small colleges and small towns, the benefit of the wealth of learning idly hoarded up in their libraries.

W. Z. Bennett.
Wooster, Wayne county, O.,
Oct. 7.

Bennet taught scientific subjects at the University (now College) of Wooster in Ohio.

Science 4, 396 (1884)

In Science for Oct. 3, your editorial calls attention to the need of making scientific libraries more widely useful. Perhaps some of your readers will be glad to know the liberal policy of the Boston Society of Natural History. The society is willing to send such books as can be replaced, to students in any part of the country, at their expense of course ; asking from strangers a deposit of twice the market-value of the books so sent, as a guaranty against loss. This is an example which may well be followed by all special libraries.

Edward Burgess, librarian.
Boston, Oct. 17.

Burgess was a typical Nineteenth Century American intellectual with wide-ranging interests. Although employed as a biology instructor at Harvard, he is best remembered for designing the yacht Puritan, which won the America's Cup in 1885.

The Boston Society of Natural History is today the Museum of Science above the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge. In its current incarnation, the Museum of Science is aimed chiefly at the general public, and especially at children; in its mission statement it defines itself as "an informal learning institution to help the formal preK-12 education system". This is true of most "science museums" in the Western world. No one would wish to deny the importance of the work of such science museums; nevertheless, they provide an example of the contingent nature of history.

In our society, "serious" scientific research is conducted at universities, at a few elite undergraduate colleges, at government or industrial laboratories, and at small number of dedicated "research institutes". Other societies have done things differently: original research has at various times been pursued chiefly in monasteries, in parsonages, on the estates of aristocrats, even in the porticoes of Athenian public buildings. Very small changes in history could have seen museums, public libraries, and zoos become dominant engines of scientific progress during the 1900s, with colleges and universities relegated to a purely instructional role. The latter half of that process is unfortunately taking place in the Twenty-First Century, but with non-academic institutions failing to take up the torch dropped by academia.

Edward Burgess in 1887

Science 4, 413 (1884)

Your remarks in Science (iv. 335-338) on a wider use for the libraries of scientific societies, give me occasion to mention at least two societies which make such use of their libraries. I think you would do a service by collating a list of such societies, and making a statement of their rules for the loan of books. A brief standing notice, or one occasionally inserted, would be of service to your readers. Certainly the societies not deriving a revenue from these loans should not be expected to advertise at their own expense.

The constitution of the American Association for the Advancement of Science provides that all books and pamphlets received by the association shall be catalogued, and that members may be allowed to call for such books and pamphlets to be delivered to them at their own expense ; but as yet the books are not available, as the catalogue has not been made.

The Cambridge Entomological Club allows subscribers to Psyche the use of its library under certain restrictions, --- a library containing about a thousand titles.

On the other hand, the American Entomological Society provides that "no books presented to the society shall be loaned from the hall under any pretence or for any purpose whatsoever."

The publishers of the Revue et magasin de zoologie, at Paris, conducted for many years a circulating library amongst the subscribers to the magazine, and reported that they had never sustained the loss of a single volume. Will not other societies or periodicals copy these practices ?

B. Pickman Mann.
Washington, D.C., Oct. 21.

Mann, son of the famous Horace, was another Harvard-trained biologist. He founded the Cambridge Entomolgical Club before entering government service with the Department of Agriculture, and thus stood at the exact cross-road of scientific history where "amateurism" and "professionalism" diverged in the late 1800s.

Pickman Mann thirty years later (from the Washington Times, 1914 November 12, illustrating an article about Mann's efforts to improve the legal status of children born to unwed mothers.)

"Interlibrary loan" was an idea whose time had almost come, and by 1894 it was a reality in California through the efforts of Berkeley's Joseph C. Rowell (comically known to Wikipedia as "U. L. Rowell" from a misunderstanding of the abbreviation for his job title "University Librarian"). In the Twentieth Century the growth of interlibrary loan programmes was slow (probably because falling publication costs, philanthropic bequests, and government funding made it possible for small institutions to greatly expand their own holdings) but inexorable, and by the heyday of Big Education in the 1960s practically any book not classified as "rare" could be borrowed by any scholar in the Western world.

Ironically, just as online databases, especially OCLC WorldCat, moved interlibrary loan out of the hands of librarians and into those of users, the whole system began to seem outdated. A century after Rowell the demand is not for physical copies of books but for their digitised content, and the issues of fairness, control, and above all "Who will pay?" remain as central and as controversial as they were in 1884.

Where "U. L. Rowell" laboured. From Berkeley, California, a picture book published by the Berkeley Evening World in 1898.