Interlibrary Loan Code for the United States Explanatory Supplement

For Use with the Interlibrary Loan Code for the United States (May 2008)

This Explanatory Supplement is intended to amplify specific sections of the Interlibrary Loan Code for the United States, providing fuller explanation and specific examples for text that is intentionally general and prescriptive. Topical headings refer to the equivalent sections in the Code. Libraries are expected to comply with the Code, using this Supplement as a source for general direction. 1


The U.S. Interlibrary Loan Code, first published in 1917 and adopted by The American Library Association in 1919, is designed to provide a code of behavior for requesting and supplying material within the United States. This code does not override individual or consortial agreements or regional or state codes which may be more liberal or more prescriptive. This national code is intended to provide guidelines for exchanges between libraries where no other agreement applies.  The code is intended to be adopted voluntarily by U.S. libraries and is not enforced by an oversight body. However, as indicated below, supplying libraries may suspend service to borrowing libraries that fail to comply with the provisions of this code.

This interlibrary loan code describes the responsibilities of libraries to each other when requesting material for users. Increasingly libraries are allowing users to request material directly from suppliers. This code makes provision for direct patron requesting and at the same time affirms the responsibility of the patron's library for the safety and return of the borrowed material, or for paying the cost of a non-returnable item sent directly to the patron.

Technology has expanded access options beyond traditional library-to-library transactions. Unmediated requests, direct-to-user delivery, purchase-on-demand options, and increasing full-text availability are exciting developments in resource sharing. At present, the Interlibrary Loan Code reflects established practices. However, libraries and other information centers are encouraged to explore and use non-traditional means where available to ensure maximum accessibility and convenience for users. More information for libraries interested in new ideas for resource sharing can be found at:

1. Definition

The Interlibrary Code for the United States covers transactions between two libraries. Transactions between libraries and commercial document suppliers or library fee-based services are contractual arrangements beyond the scope of these guidelines.

The terms "requesting library" and "supplying library" are used in preference to "borrowing" and "lending" to cover the exchange of copies as well as loans.

2. Purpose

Interlibrary loan (ILL) is intended to complement local collections and is not a substitute for good library collections intended to meet the routine needs of users. ILL is based on a tradition of sharing resources between various types and sizes of libraries and rests on the belief that no library, no matter how large or well supported, is self-sufficient in today's world. It is also evident that some libraries are net borrowers (borrow more than they lend) and others are net lenders (lend more than they borrow), but the system of interlibrary loan still rests on the belief that all libraries should be willing to lend if they are willing to borrow.

3. Scope

The conduct of international interlibrary loan is regulated by the rules set forth in the IFLA document International Lending: Principles and Guidelines for Procedure. 2

Although the U.S. shares a common border with Canada and Mexico, it is important to remember that these countries have their own library infrastructures and ILL codes. The IFLA Principles and Guidelines regulate the exchange of material between institutions across these borders. Further, U.S. librarians would be wise to inform themselves of customs requirements that take precedence over library agreements when material is shipped across these national borders, e.g., as described in the Association of Research Libraries' Transborder Interlibrary Loan: Shipping Interlibrary Loan Materials from the U.S. to Canada. 3

4. Responsibilities of the Requesting Library

4.1 Written Policies

A library's interlibrary loan borrowing policy should be available in a written format that is readily accessible to all library users. Whenever possible the borrowing policy should be posted on the library's Web site as well as be available in paper copy at public service desks or wherever other library user handouts are provided.

4.2 Confidentiality

Interlibrary loan transactions, like circulation transactions, are confidential library records. Interlibrary loan personnel are encouraged to be aware of local/state confidentiality rules and laws as they relate to interlibrary loan transactions. Appropriate steps, such as using identification numbers or codes rather than users' names, should be taken to maintain confidentiality. However, it is not a violation of this code to include a user's name on a request submitted to a supplier. Policies and procedures should be developed regarding the retention of ILL records and access to this information. ILL personnel should also be aware of privacy issues when posting requests for assistance or using the text of ILL requests as procedural examples. ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom has developed a number of policies regarding confidentiality of library records. 4

ILL staff should adhere to the American Library Association's (ALA) Code of Ethics 5, specifically principle III, that states: "We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted."

4.3 Complete Bibliographic Citation

A good bibliographic description is the best assurance that the user will receive the item requested. Rather than detail these descriptive elements, the code requires the requesting library to include whatever data provides the best indication of the desired material, whether an alphanumeric string or an extensive bibliographic citation. The important point is that this description be exact enough to avoid unnecessary work on the part of the supplier and frustration on the part of the user. For example, journal title verification rather than article level verification would be sufficient.

4.4 Identifying Appropriate Suppliers

Requesting libraries should use all resources at their disposal to determine ownership of a particular title before sending a request to a potential supplier. Many libraries contribute their holdings to major bibliographic utilities such as DOCLINE and/or OCLC and make their individual catalogs freely available via the Internet. The interlibrary loan listserv ( or other ILL-related lists are also excellent sources for the requesting library to verify and/or locate particularly difficult items.

The requesting library is encouraged to use resources such as the OCLC Policies Directory to determine lending policies, including any applicable charges, before requesting material.

The requesting library should clearly state on the request an amount that meets or exceeds the charges of suppliers to which the request is sent. The requesting library is responsible for payment of any fees charged by the supplying library that are less than or equal to the amount stated on its request. Libraries are encouraged to use electronic invoicing capabilities such as OCLC's Interlibrary Loan Fee Management (IFM) system or the Electronic Fund Transfer System used by medical libraries.

4.5 Sending Unverified Requests

Despite the requirements in Sec. 4.4 and 4.5 that an item should be completely and accurately described and located, the code recognizes that it is not always possible to verify and/or locate a particular item. For example, a request may be sent to a potential supplier with strong holdings in a subject or to the institution at which the dissertation was written.

4.6 Transmitting the Request

The code recommends electronic communication. For many libraries, sending requests electronically means using the ILL messaging systems associated with DOCLINE, OCLC, other products that use the ISO ILL Protocol, or structured email requests.

Lacking the ability to transmit in this fashion, the requesting library should send a completed ALA interlibrary loan request form via fax, Internet transmission, or mail; use a potential supplier’s web request form; or otherwise provide the necessary information via email message or conventional letter. Whatever communication method is used, the requesting library should identify and use the appropriate address or number for ILL requests.

The requesting library should include a street address, a postal box number, an IP address, a fax number, and an email address to give the supplying library delivery options.  Any special needs, such as for a particular edition, language, or rush delivery, should be included on the request.

In addition, because the primary purpose of interlibrary loan is to provide material for relatively short term use by an individual, the requesting library should communicate with the supplying library in advance if the material is needed for other uses (such as course reserves, classroom or other group viewing of audio-visual material or for an extended loan period, especially of a textbook).

4.7 Copy Requests

The requesting library is responsible for complying with the provisions of Section 108(g)(2) Copyright Law 6 and the Guidelines for the Proviso of Subsection 108(g)(2) prepared by the National Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works (the CONTU Guidelines). 7

4.8 Responsibility of the Requester

The requesting library assumes an inherent risk when material is supplied through interlibrary loan. Although the number is small, some material is lost or damaged at some point along the route from the supplier and back again. The requesting library's responsibility for this loss is based on the concept that if the request had not been made, the material would not have left the supplier's shelf, and thus would not have been put at risk. This section clearly states that the requesting library is responsible for the material from the time it leaves the supplying library until its safe return to the supplying library.

If the requesting library asks for delivery at a location away from the library (such as to the user's home), the requesting library is likewise responsible for the material during this delivery and return process. In any case, a final decision regarding replacement, repair, or compensation rests with the supplying library.

Borrowed items should be returned in the condition in which they were received at the requesting library. In particular, adhesive labels or tape should not be affixed directly to any borrowed item.

It is the responsibility of the requesting library to pay invoices received or to notify the supplying library of any billing questions not later than six months from the billing date for the charges in question. The requesting library should also make every attempt to resolve billing questions within six months of notifying the supplying library of an apparent billing error.

Although the code stipulates that the requesting library is required to pay if billed for a lost or damaged item, the supplying library is not necessarily required to charge for a lost item. In the case of lost material, the requesting and supplying libraries may need to work together to resolve the matter. For instance, the library shipping the material may need to initiate a trace with the delivery firm.

4.9 Responsibility for Unmediated ILL Requests

Some requesting libraries permit users to initiate online ILL requests that are sent directly to potential supplying libraries. A requesting library that chooses to allow its users to order materials through interlibrary loan without mediation accepts responsibility for these requests as if they have been placed by library staff. The supplying library may assume that the user has been authenticated and authorized to place requests and that the requesting library assumes full responsibility for transaction charges, the safety and return of material, and the expense of replacement or repair.

4.10 Due Date and Use Restrictions

This code makes a departure from earlier codes that described due dates in terms of a "loan period" which was interpreted as the length of time a requesting library could retain the material before returning it. The primary object of this section is to provide a clear definition of due date as the date the material must be checked in at the supplying library. This definition brings ILL practice into alignment with automated circulation procedures and is intended to facilitate interoperability of ILL and circulation applications.

The requesting library should develop a method for monitoring due dates so that material can be returned to and checked in at the supplying library by the due date assigned by the supplying library.

The requesting library is responsible for ensuring compliance with any use restrictions specified by the supplying library such as "library use only" or "no photocopying."

4.11 Renewals

When the supplying library denies a renewal request the material should be returned by the original due date or as quickly as possible if the renewal is denied after the due date has passed.

4.12 Recalls

The response to a recall may be the immediate return of the material, or timely communication with the supplying library to negotiate a new due date.

When the material has been recalled, the requesting library is encouraged to return the material via an expedited delivery carrier such as UPS, FedEx, or USPS Priority Mail.

4.13 Shipping

It is the ultimate responsibility of the requesting library to return materials in the same condition in which they were received as noted in section 4.8 of the Interlibrary Loan Code for the United States.

It is the responsibility of the requesting library to follow the shipping and packaging requirements, including insurance and preferred shipping method, as stipulated by the supplying library. Packaging is defined as the outer material, which may be a box, padded envelope, etc. Wrapping is defined as an inner covering for the item such as paper or bubble wrap.

If no shipping or packaging methods are specified, the requesting library's regular form of shipment should be used.

If packaging material has been used previously, remove or mark out old addresses, postal marks, etc. to avoid misdirection. Do not reuse old, frayed, ripped, or decaying packaging and wrapping materials – discard it instead. Clearly address all packages with both the destination and return addresses properly attached to the packaging material.

In accordance with United States Postal Service guidelines, tape is the preferred sealing methods on all types of packages. Remember that wrapping and packaging materials will most likely be reused. So, please use tape judiciously. If staples must be used, do not use industrial (e.g. copper) staples if at all possible. Copper staples make it very difficult to reuse wrapping and packaging materials and are not ergonomically sound.

Use wrapping and packaging material that is appropriate to the size and format of the material being shipped. Too small or too large packaging will not adequately protect materials during transportation. Remember to use appropriate wrapping to avoid shifting and damage to the contents.

For special formats, consult the appropriate ALA Guidelines:

  • American Library Association. Association for Library Collections and Technical Services. Guidelines for Packaging and Shipping Magnetic Tape Recording and Optical Discs (CD-ROM and CD-R) Carrying Audio, Video, and/or Data, n.d.
  • American Library Association. Association for Library Collections and Technical Services. Guidelines for Packaging and Shipping Microforms, 1989.
  • American Library Association. Association for Library Collections and Technical Services. Guidelines for Preservation Photocopying of Replacement Pages, 1990.
  • American Library Association. Video Round Table. Guidelines for the Interlibrary Loan of Audiovisual Formats, 1998.
  • American Library Association. Association of College and Research Libraries. Ad Hoc Committee on the Interlibrary Loan of Rate and Unique Materials.Guidelines for the Interlibrary Loan of Rare and Unique Materials, 2004.

4.14 Suspension of Service

Repeated or egregious breaches of this code may result in the requesting library's inability to obtain material. Examples of actions that may result in suspension include lost or damaged books, allowing "library use only" books to leave the library, or failing to pay the supplier's charges. A supplying library should not suspend service to a requesting library without first attempting to resolve the problem(s).

5. Responsibilities of the Supplying Library

5.1 Lending Policy

The lending policy should be clear, detailed, and readily available to requesting libraries. The policy should include among other things, schedule of fees and charges, overdue fines, non-circulating items/categories, current shipping instructions, calendar for service suspensions, penalties for late payments, etc. While a supplying library may charge additional fees for the rapid delivery of requested material, it is recommended that no additional fees be charged for the routine supply of documents via electronic means.

The supplying library is encouraged to make its lending policy available in print, on the library's Web site, and in resources such as the OCLC Policies Directory. The supplying library should be willing to fill requests for all types and classes of users, and all types of libraries, regardless of their size or geographic location.

5.2 Material Format

Supplying libraries are encouraged to lend as liberally as possible regardless of the format of the material requested, while retaining the right to determine what material will be supplied. It is the obligation of the supplying library to consider the loan of material on a case by case basis. Supplying libraries are encouraged to lend audiovisual material, newspapers, and other categories of material that have traditionally been non-circulating.

Supplying libraries are encouraged to follow ACRL's Guidelines for the Interlibrary Loan of Rare and Unique Materials 8 and the Guidelines for Interlibrary Loan of Audiovisual Formats. 9

If permitted by copyright law, the supplying library should consider providing a copy in lieu of a loan rather than giving a negative response.

Supplying libraries should be aware of the provisions of license agreements for electronic resources that may either permit or prohibit use of an electronic resource to fill interlibrary copying requests.

5.3 Confidentiality

The supplying library has a responsibility to safeguard the confidentiality of the individual requesting the material. The sharing of the user's name between requesting and supplying library is not, of itself, a violation of confidentiality. However, the supplying library should not require the user's name if the requesting library chooses not to provide it. If the name is provided, the supplying library needs to take care not to divulge the identity of the person requesting the material.

5.4 Timely Processing

The supplying library has a responsibility to act promptly on all requests. If a supplying library cannot fill a request within a reasonable time then it should respond promptly. The response should be sent via the same method the requesting library used to send the request, or by otherwise contacting the requesting library directly. Some ILL messaging systems such as OCLC and DOCLINE have built-in time periods after which requests will either expire or be sent to another institution. The supplying library should respond before this time expires rather than allow requests to time-out.

Providing a reason for an unfilled request helps the requesting library determine what additional steps, if any, may be taken to access the requested item. For example, "non-circulating" indicates the item is likely available for on-site use while "in use" indicates that another request at a later date might be filled. Providing no reason or simply stating "policy problem" or "other" without providing additional information deprives the requesting library of important information and can lead to time-consuming follow-up for both libraries.

Timely processing of a loan or copy may involve other library departments, such as circulation, copy services, and the mailroom. The interlibrary loan department is responsible for ensuring that material is delivered expeditiously, irrespective of internal library organizational responsibilities.

The supplying library should, when charging for materials, make every effort to allow for a variety of payment options. Payment through electronic crediting and debiting services such as OCLC's ILL Fee Management (IFM) system or other non-invoicing payment forms such as IFLA vouchers should be encouraged. The supplying library that charges should make every effort to accept the use of vouchers, coupons, or credit cards.

It is the responsibility of the supplying library to send final bills for service not later than six months after the supply date, final overdue notices not later than six months after the final due date, and final bills for replacement of lost material not later than one year after the final due date. The supplying library should resolve billing questions within six months of receiving notice of an apparent billing error.

5.5 Identifying the Request

The supplying library should send sufficient identifying information with the material to allow the requesting library to identify the material and process the request quickly. Such information may include a copy of the request, the requestor's transaction number, or the user's ID or name. Failure to include identifying information with the material can unduly delay its processing and may risk the safety of the material.

Supplying libraries are encouraged to enclose an accurate and complete return mailing label.

5.6 Use Restrictions and Due Date

Although it is the responsibility of the requesting library to ensure the safe treatment and return of borrowed material, the supplying library should provide specific instructions when it is lending material that needs special handling. These instructions might include the requirement that material be used only in a monitored special collections area, no photocopying, library use only, specific return packaging/shipping instructions, etc. The supplying library should not send "library use only" material directly to a user.

The supplying library should clearly indicate the date on which it expects the loan to be discharged in its circulation system. As explained in section 4.10 above, this code has moved away from the concept of a loan period, to a definite date that accommodates the sending and return of material as well as sufficient time for the use of the material. For example, a supplying library might establish a due date of six (6) weeks for the purpose of providing one (1) week for shipping, four (4) weeks for use, and one (1) week for the return trip and check-in.

5.7 Delivery and Packaging

The location specified by the requesting library may include the requesting library, a branch or departmental library, or the individual user.

It is the responsibility of the supplying library:

  • to judge whether an item is suitable for shipment and circulation. If a damaged item is sent, the supplying library should note all prior damage (such as loose pages or loose spine) and not hold the requesting library responsible for subsequent damage.
  • to take care that the material it sends out is properly packaged to protect the item from damage even though the requesting library will be held responsible for material damaged in shipment to specify the shipping method, as well as insurance, for returning materials and if any special wrapping or packaging is required. See section 4.13 above for definitions and other important information regarding wrapping and packaging.
  • to provide a complete street address if asking for return via UPS, FedEx, etc. (Many supplying libraries find it safer and more cost effective to ship all material via expedited carriers).
  • to work with the requesting library when tracing a lost or damaged item if the commercial delivery firm is responsible for reimbursement for losses in transit.

5.8 Renewals

The supplying library should respond affirmatively or negatively to all renewal requests. The supplying library is encouraged to grant the renewal request if the material is not needed by a local user.

5.9 Recalls

The supplying library may recall material at its discretion at any time. Increasingly, some libraries are finding it more effective to request the material on ILL for a local user rather than to recall material in use by another library.

5.10 Service Suspension

A supplying library should not suspend service without first attempting to address the problem(s) with the requesting library.


   1 Boucher, Virginia. Interlibrary Loan Practices Handbook. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1997. Though written in light of an earlier code, the Practices Handbook contains many useful and practical details on interlibrary loan procedures.

   2 International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. International Lending: Principles and Guidelines for Procedure. 2001.

   3 Transborder Interlibrary Loan: Shipping Interlibrary Loan Materials from the U.S. to Canada. 1999. (note: Pricing information is out of date)

   4 American Library Association. Office for Intellectual Freedom. Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records. 1986. .  American Library Association. Office for Intellectual Freedom. Policy Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information about Library Users. 2004.    

   5 American Library Association. Committee on Professional Ethics. Code of Ethics. Chicago, American Library Association, 1995.

   6 Copyright Law of the United States of America Chapter 1, Section 108: Limitations on the exclusive rights: Reproduction by libraries and archives.

   7 National Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works. Guidelines on Photocopying Under Interlibrary Loan Arrangements.

   8 American Library Association. Association of College and Research Libraries. Ad Hoc Committee on the Interlibrary Loan of Rate and Unique Materials. Guidelines for the Loan of Rare and Unique Materials. 2004.

   9 American Library Association. Video Round Table. Guidelines for Interlibrary Loan of Audiovisual Formats. 1998.

   10 Hilyer, Lee. Interlibrary loan and document delivery : best practices for operating and managing interlibrary loan services in all libraries. New York : Haworth Information Press, 2006.(Co-published simultaneously as Journal of interlibrary loan, document delivery & electronic reserve, volume 16, numbers 1/2, 2006)

   11 Hilyer, Lee. Interlibrary loan and document delivery in the larger academic library : a guide for university, research, and larger public libraries.  Binghamton, NY : Haworth Information Press, 2002. (Co-published simultaneously as Journal of interlibrary loan, document delivery & information supply, v. 13, nos. 1/2, 2002)