DECwriters, Dr. requests, and three-letter combos—memories from 40 years of ILL


Anniversary celebrations are always fun. They remind us of important events and accomplishments from the past. They give us a chance to look back over the years and reflect on just how far we’ve come. Remembering yesteryears—without letting them rule us—can help us understand who we are.

Anniversaries also bring back many fond memories of relationships, successes … and outdated equipment.

This year, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of OCLC interlibrary loan (ILL). And understandably it brought back many memories for many people. Here is a sampling that were recently shared with us on the ILL listserv.

Using dial access and helping save a patient’s life

Sue Kaler, Retired Interlibrary Loan Manager, Massachusetts Library System

ILL 40th 2ILL 40th 3My first ILL experience was at the library of Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company in 1982. We had dial access to OCLC, which means we called an 800 number on a telephone and then jammed the telephone line into an acoustic coupler when it connected. That allowed our DECwriter to connect to OCLC. The DECwriter had no display screen. You typed your commands into it and the system you were connecting to typed back at you. Pretty basic, but it did allow some quick work. For more involved work, I walked around the corner to Suffolk University late on Friday afternoons, when their technical services staff had gone home, and logged into their OCLC computer … maybe an M300 … using Houghton Mifflin’s login. Things have come a LONG WAY!

Patrick Pemberton, Access Services Supervisor, National University Library

I started using OCLC for ILL in 1988 working at the now defunct Medical Library Center of New York (VVZ). They had a desk-sized OCLC station that seemed so large and complex to me, I thought I might accidentally launch an ICBM at the Soviets. I think the nicest thing that has ever happened to me doing ILL—or any other work for that matter—happened at that job. We tracked down a medical article and faxed it to the hospital library that had requested it. A few days later the guy at the hospital library calls me, all excited. He says,

“Dr. So and So, the surgeon you got that article for, just came into my office.”


“You don’t understand, doctors NEVER come down here. Not only that, he wanted to thank me for getting that journal article. I said it wasn’t me, sir, it was the people over at Medical Library Center. Then the doc says ‘well you call those people up and thank them for me. Tell them that the information they found for me helped save my patient’s life.’”

I know we were just a tiny part in that process, but it still feels really good. ?

Memories from 40 years of ILL #OCLCnext Click To Tweet

Seeing three capital letters and thinking of a library

Fred Smith, ILL Emeritus, Georgia Southern University

I started in ILL just before OCLC was introduced at my library, Columbus (GA) College, now Columbus State University (GCO). Before OCLC, we got our holdings from a state agency that owned some union lists, and we typed the ALA forms. And of course, we also used the huge LC holdings volumes (Pre-1953, or something close) and serial holdings titles. When OCLC was introduced, I was allowed one hour a day in cataloging where the terminal was located. It worked perfectly for books, but at that time serials had a major flaw—OCLC had no way to display what volumes and years a library owned. To get around this, a number of the libraries around the state participated in a project to enter our holdings in a manual. A guy who knew something of computers used punch cards to make a union list for us, and I tucked it under my arm when my hour came. Unfortunately, the big academic libraries were not included. So, I fired off many a request to University of Georgia (GUA), Georgia Tech (GAT), Emory (EMU), and Georgia State University (GSU) hoping they had the year I needed.

One odd thing that sticks in my mind was that we owned copies of two reports on computing done by Bell Labs. They were part of a big series, but we only owned the two. Most libraries cataloged the series, but we cataloged the two reports by their titles. This made them easy to find on OCLC’s system and they were requested by libraries all over the world. One was called YACC: Yet Another Compiler Compiler. It would hardly come back to us again before it was sent off to some other far away location.

I am working in ILL part time as long as funding is available. I joke with the new ILL librarian that she will truly be one of us when she reaches the point where every time, she sees three capital letters, her mind starts matching it up with a library. I see students with GAP tee shirts on and wonder why they are such fans of Atlanta Public.

Jan Ezkovich Barnes, Interlibrary Loan Librarian, New Orleans Public Library

I remember, as a graduate assistant, at LSU/SLIS, learning how to find journals using OCLC: jour,of,the,r.. I got rather good at it. ? Fast forward 20 years, when I jump-started ILL at New Orleans Public Library after Katrina, following five or so years without ILL service. I’d never have made it without the support of this group and others. Thinking back, I wonder how we got along using the NUC (remember those?), never mind the internet (as we know it today … it was something we were only just hearing about when I got my degree).

I think my happiest ILL moment came when I got a card from a patron saying how great it was that ILL service was back, and that I was wonderful. ? What an ego boost!

I too, watch for three-letter combos. I got a kick when I found EZK (Cranbrook Academy of Art Library) since I’d been hoping to find it (note the maiden/middle name) on a license plate, like, forever … I think I found it once. ?

Also, as a grad assistant in reference at LSU, a student (who was taking the ‘books ‘n’ ‘baries’ class) asked me to find him a biography of the common cold! ‘Biography’ was the only reference source he still needed. I tried: well, maybe we could find a person who did research on the common cold, and find a biography of him? No. I need a biography of the common cold …  ‘Do you even know what a biography is? Have you been paying attention in class?’ Mumble, mumble years later, it’s still my favorite story. ?

Remembering the days of paper cuts

Susan Lee, Senior Librarian, University of Providence

I started in 1984 using the Western Library Network (WLN) with a Bell & Howell Apple. You could print or you could see what was on the screen, you couldn’t do both.

We typed the requests on to four-part ALA forms. If the item wasn’t in WLN, we paid the University of Washington to look up locations in OCLC. When WLN started their ILL system, I trained the Circulation Clerks on how to use it.

When WLN merged with OCLC in 1999, we began using the OCLC system and I trained a whole new generation of library workers and student workers several times (over several different OCLC ILL systems).

Johannes Loetz, Interlibrary Loan Department, Longmont Public Library

I’m just beginning my love affair with ILL, but I’m loving these stories.  Can’t wait for the day when I have junior ILLers sitting around me, and in the flickering glow of the hovering computer screens I can astound them with:

“Back when I started, we had to put pen on paper and with actual ink, fill out a form, type our request into the computer key by key—yes, these were the days before our brains could connect to WiFi—and then put the form into a big hard drive we called the ‘filing cabinet.’  That’s right, like uploading, only we had to fight off feral dust bunnies. Then the creaky wheels of physical transport would turn, and in weeks, we’d get the dusty tome from a far-off land called WorldShareia. Those were the golden days.  Now let me tell you a horror story I like to call, ‘Paper Cuts’…”

Biography or bibliography? Can you borrow an armadillo skeleton?

Susan Morris, University of Georgia Libraries

The machine I have in mind is a TWX machine, which we used here at GUA. To save connect time on the phone, you could punch a (long) tape with the information (sort of like the early computer punch cards, except in ribbon form) to be sent,  and then quickly run  it through to transmit the requests/information to another institution. Back in the day, phone charges were murder!

Virginia Boucher at Colorado Boulder showed her pioneering spirit (and one of the reasons that the ALA award is in her honor) to organize ILL practitioners across the country by starting a newsletter entitled just b’twx us with vol. 1, no. 1 coming out in May 1970 (I’m working on a presentation for a workshop and just happened to have the info at hand—I don’t usually carry such information like that around in my head!)maillot de foot pas cher

armadillo_320While I’m at it, one of our most unusual requests just came in from one of our users about a month ago. She wanted us to try to borrow an armadillo skeleton from another institution in our state. Cindy, our Borrowing Supervisor, tried her best, contacting the supposed supplier, but it didn’t work out!

Arthur Robinson, Reference and Interlibrary Loan Librarian, LaGrange College

I get students who want sources on something that happened last month, and after I find them magazine and newspaper articles, say “I also need a reference book about it.”

I also once had a student who skipped a required appointment because he didn’t need it.  “I heard you’d be telling us how to write bibliographies, and I know how to do that.”  It turned out he thought a bibliography was a book about someone’s life.

Hope you enjoyed reading these stories. Send us yours ( and we’ll share with the community during this special 40th anniversary year.