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Recommendation of the ILL Interoperability Task Force

[September 16, 1999]

Copyright (c) 1999 OCLC

September 16, 1999

Summary Recommendation

The Task Force concluded the following, based on its knowledge of current and anticipated interlibrary loan workflow: It is not in the best interests of the OCLC membership to implement the extensions to the ISO ILL Protocol to synchronize requests between OCLC ILL Online System and ILL management systems, as proposed by OCLC in March 1999.

Background to the Task Force

Today, most interlibrary loan transactions in the United States are channeled from one institution to another through external bibliographic or messaging utilities such as OCLC that provide bibliographic information, item location, and message handling and routing services. In fact, many libraries use several external systems (OCLC, RLIN, DocLine, or a consortium server) to locate material and manage requests.

Recently it has become technologically possible to move ILL message handling and routing onto the library's local computer system, allowing all requests to be tracked and controlled locally no matter which external utility is used as the path for the request. Local, centralized management of ILL requests is expected to improve the efficiency of ILL request handling because it provides a single interface for staff to input and track requests.

The key to this development is a set of data exchange conventions known as the ISO Interlibrary Loan Protocols. OCLC, arguably the nation's principal interlibrary loan messaging system, has been a leader in the implementation of these protocols and has successfully tested system interoperability, the ability to exchange data with a local system. The purpose of testing this interoperability was to lay the groundwork for automation vendors to develop ILL management systems that could manage ILL requests within the proprietary local library system and also communicate successfully with the OCLC ILL Online System.

As the prospect of interoperability came closer, OCLC became concerned that libraries might need to enter requests in both the vendor-supplied ILL management system and the OCLC ILL Online System. The protocols, as currently agreed upon, do not support the simultaneous use of duplicate systems managing the same request. OCLC was concerned that requests placed by staff or patrons using familiar OCLC interfaces such as First Search would not be synchronized with the local ILL management system, causing a breakdown in communication and extra work for staff maintaining two systems.

To resolve this perceived problem OCLC proposed that vendors (represented by the ILL Protocol Implementers Group) implement a number of "extensions" to the protocols that would assure that all systems remained synchronized. Some participants saw this proposal as contrary to the logical flow of information as described in the protocols and objections were raised.

Since the issue is primarily one of workflow rather than technology, OCLC formed a task force in July 1999 to investigate the needs of OCLC members for ILL interoperability and to advise OCLC on the method of interoperability that should be implemented. OCLC agreed to implement the recommendations of the task force. The task force is comprised of staff from OCLC member libraries worldwide. The goal was to select representatives who can provide independent perspectives on the issues and who represent different types of libraries, including academic research libraries, college and university libraries, public libraries, and state and consortia libraries, and different levels of staff, including directors and ILL staff.

Task force Members

Shirley K. Baker (Chair), Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Dean of University Libraries, Washington University, St. Louis
Tammy Nickelson Dearie, Director, Access and Delivery Services, University of California
Bettina Meyer, Assistant Dean, Resources, Western Michigan University
Harry E. Samuels, Assistant University Librarian, Information Technology, Northwestern University Library
Sarah Simpson, Interlibrary Loan Supervisor, Tulsa City-County Library System
Carol Smale, Director, Resource-Sharing Services, National Library of Canada
Chris Wright, Chief, Loan Division, Library of Congress.

Charge to the Task Force

The task force was charged to answer the question, "How should the linkage, or interoperability, between the ILL management systems and the OCLC ILL Online System be designed?"

Task Force Discussion

The answer to the question posed in the Task Force Charge is directly dependent up how one envisions ILL workflow in the future. The Task Force discussion suggested there are basically two schools of thought on ILL workflow.

  1. The Single Workflow Theory

ILL workflows are changing rapidly and local ILL management systems will soon be the norm in institutions with large interlibrary loan traffic. If a library chooses to use an ILL management system, it expects that all ILL transactions will be handled exclusively through that ILL management system interface.


    • The ILL management system will connect uniformly to multiple external systems such as OCLC, DocLine, or the British Library, creating a single work process for all requests.
    • Libraries will inevitably choose to use this single interface to simplify work procedures and assure uniform control over the ILL process.
    • A single interface simplifies staff training and learning curves,
    • Paper files can be eliminated as the ILL management system can track all ILL activity.


    • Local ILL management systems can be designed using the ILL ISO Protocol without the extensions requested by OCLC.
    • Users (staff or patrons) will only be allowed to enter or edit their ILL records in their ILL management system.
    • Direct access through the OCLC ILL Online System user interface will be denied including access from Passport or the ILL Microenhancer, or
    • Occasional requests entered directly on OCLC will be unknown to the local ILL management system and will be processed on OCLC only, creating a separate (but exceptional) workflow.
    • If multiple systems are used (e.g. an ILL management system and OCLC ILL) the library staff must remember which requests were placed on which system and will not have a single system that provides statistics for all activity.
  1. The Multiple Workflow Theory

ILL workflows will change gradually as staff and users become habituated to a new technology. ILL staff need options to be able to adequately handle their workload based on access to equipment and staff capabilities. OCLC members using an ILL management system may on occasion want to access the OCLC ILL Online System directly. The systems need to interoperate effectively so that ILL staff can use the interface of choice based on their immediate need and the systems will guarantee the integrity of the ILL requests as needed.


    • The OCLC ILL Online System offers features that are time-tested and often used in high-volume, production ILL departments. An ILL management system may not offer these same efficiencies. ILL staff should be able to take advantage of the best features of each system.
    • If ILL staff are going to use dual paths to the same ILL request (entering the initial request directly on OCLC and updating it through the local ILL management system), it is essential that the systems synchronize the ILL requests to guarantee the integrity of the record.


    • For both the local and external systems to maintain concurrent knowledge of all ILL transactions it would be necessary to implement the extensions to the ISO ILL protocol proposed by OCLC. All systems, the ILL management systems and OCLC, must implement these extensions.
    • Since each system will know about all transactions, consolidated statistics can be obtained from the ILL management system.
    • ILL staff are not forced to move all activity to a new system. This can be a positive for allowing current practices to be used and a negative if a goal is achieving efficiency and follow "best practices" in workflow processes.

Specific Objectives

  • The task force was asked to determine if either or both of the workflow scenarios previously identified were required by OCLC members in their interlibrary loan activity.
  • The task force was asked to submit its conclusions from the investigation to OCLC in report form. OCLC would be responsible for dissemination and publication of the information.
  • OCLC agreed to accept the input of the task force on which workflow scenario(s) are required by OCLC members in their interlibrary loan activity and will proceed with implementation of the needed systems. The task force may also provide OCLC with general feedback of member needs for their interlibrary loan activity for use in resource sharing planning.

The Task Force Process

The Task Force met on August 5, 1999 to consider issues related to the two workflows described above that had been identified in a previous exchange of correspondence among members. The task force discussions ultimately focussed on whether or not vendors seeking to be interoperable with OCLC should be required to implement the ILL Protocol extensions, based on the Task Force's understanding of the two ILL workflows. The discussion is summarized below.

  1. Do not implement the additional OCLC extensions.


  • Will speed transition of libraries and vendors to protocol-compliant environment
  • Will remove barriers to rapid development of ILL management systems by vendors.
  • Will reduce temptation in ILL offices to maintain two systems.
  • Will encourage use of "best practices" (simplified workflow and latest technology) in ILL operations
  • There will be potential cost savings to libraries that use a single system rather than continuing or enhancing ability to operate two systems.
  • This will not affect libraries that do not use an ILL management system (the majority of libraries today, and in the near future. It should be noted that ILL management systems may only be of interest to larger, more complex libraries.)


  • Fails to address the need to maintain synchronicity when requests can be placed and updated in both the local ILL management system and the OCLC ILL Online System.
  • Will require direct communication from FirstSearch and OCLC ILL Direct to ILL management systems so that FirstSearch and OCLC ILL Direct can remain a viable patron interface for institutions that use ILL management systems.
  1. Require implementation of the extensions to the ISO ILL Protocols in order to be interoperable with the OCLC ILL Online System.


  • Dual systems will be synchronized most of the time.
  • Staff may find this advantageous because it will require fewer changes to daily workflow in the short term.
  • There will be a slower transition and longer learning curve for staff.
  • Allows staff to select preferred workflow based on diverse situations and varying technical capabilities.
  • Offering the potential to use dual systems may be easier to sell to the existing library community and may be more acceptable to members in the short term.


  • Will not be using technology to leverage inevitable change.
  • Dual systems are inefficient.
  • Adoption of ILL management systems may be slower if use of dual systems is facilitated.
  • Will create a burden on ILL management system vendors.
  • May pose problems in designing interoperability with non-OCLC centralized systems (such as NLM's Docline or RLG's RLIN systems).
  • Specialized "tailoring" of standards may lead to configuration problems.
  • This could be viewed as a provincial American decision and may indicate a lack of regard on the part of OCLC for the international market and international standards.
  • Changing the standards with these extensions may increase difficulty in expanding efficient ILL practices beyond North America.
  • May transmit a message that OCLC is not interested in market penetration and expanding access to cataloging.
  • May make it more difficult to link ILL management systems with circulation systems.

The task force also considered a third alternative:

  1. Accept the OCLC extensions to the ISO ILL Protocol, but do not make them mandatory for use with the OCLC ILL Online System.

While this option appears to allow vendors to choose whether to implement the extension or not, the realities of the marketplace will require implementation and create the situation described in option 2 above.

Key Issues in the Future of Interlibrary Loan

In reviewing the workflows and options the Task Force identified key issues that will affect short- and long-term goals for the future of interlibrary loan services.

Critical challenges to improving interlibrary loan lie in harnessing user energy (direct patron requesting), in promoting system interoperability (virtual catalogs and virtual libraries), and in elevating staff intervention to that of establishing policies and dealing with complex exceptions.

OCLC has made great contributions in helping libraries meet these challenges. However the Task Force felt that OCLC's initial decision to require the ILL Protocol extensions was based on a faulty assumption. That assumption was that OCLC member libraries would demand that their staff be able to work both in a local ILL management system and directly on OCLC, and that the software must be able to synchronize the two systems.

The Task Force believes that, for the most part, library staff will either work in one system or the other, but not both, because this will be manifestly inefficient. The purpose of having a single ILL management system is to have one tool to manage all requests and replies. Despite the probability of some staff resistance, especially in high-volume environments where processes are highly routinized, it is expected that most institutions with local ILL management systems will not expect or encourage the use of other routes for placing or updating requests.

The Task Force realized that OCLC has made a significant commitment toward the goal of harnessing users' energies by developing such patron interfaces as FirstSearch and Direct Patron ILL. Implementing the protocol extensions would allow these patron interfaces with OCLC to continue functioning as presently designed. On the other hand, not implementing the protocols and channeling all ILL request traffic through the local ILL management system would impede their use since these are direct connections to the OCLC ILL Online System.

The Task Force also recognized that a number of much-heralded OCLC ILL enhancements, including IFM and ILL Direct, have been actually adopted by only a relatively small number of the OCLC membership. In fact, the Task Force considers this an inherent, if unfortunate, aspect of the current state of interlibrary loan operations. Staff may be slow to adopt services, especially if given the option of continuing to use an older, more labor-intensive service rather than making a change that could save time and improve service to their patrons.


Having considered all these aspects of interlibrary loan workflow, the Task Force concluded that implementing the OCLC extensions to the ILL Protocols to synchronize requests between systems was not the best choice for OCLC and its member libraries. Therefore, the Task Force recommended the following actions:

  • Do not implement the proposed ILL Protocol extensions that provide for the synchronizations of requests between systems.
  • Immediately begin development of a protocol-based link that would channel FirstSearch requests through local ILL management systems, thus avoiding the problem of dual systems and the need to "backflow" messages to guarantee synchronicity.

In addition, the Task Force recommended that when OCLC develops new services it focus on reducing options and complexity and letting obsolete processes die rather than perpetuating familiar but obsolete practices. It also suggested that OCLC change its marketing strategies to involve senior library management and OCLC network administrators in encouraging efficient processes. The Task Force recognizes that implementing changes is a difficult and shared responsibility. Member libraries, regional networks and OCLC should work together in effecting such changes to encourage libraries to incorporate new services more quickly.

View Citation
Publication Year:1999
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Issue:September 16, 1999
Place of Publication:Dublin, OH
Company: OCLC
Subject: OCLC
Interlibrary loan automation
Online access:
Record Number:4037
Last Update:2012-12-29 14:06:47
Date Created:0000-00-00 00:00:00