Behind the scenes at the Library

This article by Katherine Beckwith was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on August 20, 2018.

In this month's Arizona Daily Star column, Katherine Beckwith lets us in on the joy to be found working behind the scenes at the Library.

The Library is a busy place! Walk into any one of our 26 locations and you’ll not only see shelves of books and people using computers, but you’ll also see:

  • children dancing during StoryTime or reading to a dog
  • a local author giving a talk
  • a public health nurse taking someone’s blood pressure
  • a public screening of a film from one of our streaming services

It takes a lot of work to run a library. The people you see helping with events and assisting customers are not the only staff who help keep the Library running. There’s the friendly folks who buy the books (like Michelle in our Collection Development Office), the people who make sure all of our locations are up-to-date and well cared for, and those who manage the online catalog. I’m one of those people behind the scenes.

Do you want J.A. Jance’s newest release delivered to our Nanini Library? No problem—just place a hold and request the location. Did you hear about a soon-to-be-released book on NPR and want to make sure the Library has it when it comes out? Be sure to use our easy-to-use Suggest a Purchase form.  

You might be thinking—these are great services for NEW books, but I want something that’s older and maybe even out of print. Can you get me that? We’ll certainly try! That’s where the fun part of my job begins.

The service is called Interlibrary Loan (ILL) and it’s just one more awesome way the Library dedicates time and resources to best serving our customers. Let’s say you’re looking for Sedona Power Spot, Vortex & Medicine Wheel Guide by Richard Dannelley. Just because we don’t have it doesn’t mean we won’t try to get it! Remember microfilm? ILL even includes that. We can also get copies of journal articles.

By now, I’m hoping I’ve piqued your interest and you’re wondering how it works. It’s simple! You request something we don’t have or can’t add to our collection, and we check with other libraries nationwide to request that they lend it to us for you, our wonderful customer, to borrow. As with everything, there are some rules to the ILL service (for example, no more than six active requests at a time and no renewals), but overall it’s quite straightforward. And, guess what? There’s no limit to the number of requests you can make in a year!

What’s my job in a nutshell? Providing access to information—something I consider essential in today’s world. Here are just a few of the reasons I think ILL is so important:

  • Not everyone can afford to purchase out-of-print books or large print editions when their library or local bookstore doesn’t stock it.
  • Journal subscriptions can be prohibitively expensive
  • The service is not just for research materials! Requests can be on all topics – we get quite a few for out-of-print romance.

Sometimes I think ILL is not a well-known service, but here’s something to consider… last year alone, we borrowed nearly 11,500 items for our customers. That’s close to 32 items every day of the year! Wondering where all these materials come from? Those 11,500 items made their way from 300 different libraries—some public, some academic, and even a few government libraries like the Army Intelligence Center and the Jet Propulsion Lab.

ILL is a two-way street. We also lend books to other libraries. On average, we lend approximately 2,000 books annually to libraries nationwide. We tend to receive requests for regional materials, like the archaeological journal KIVA and cookbooks about preparing foods made from mesquite—unsurprising given our recent designation as a City of Gastronomy. Since photocopies can be emailed, we do fulfill the occasional international request. I’ve sent articles to South Korea, South Africa, and Mexico, among others. The Southwest is such a unique place to live and I feel a sense of pride sharing its uniqueness with other parts of the US and the world.

ILL requests are done almost exclusively through our online catalog so I do not usually see my customers face to face. It delights me when a customer takes the time to send a thank you email.

I remember a comment about how quickly we were able to get a journal copy. I think the turnaround time was around 12 hours. Here’s how it happened:

  • Our customer entered their request around midnight
  • We processed the request that morning
  • The lending library (this time in Lubbock, Texas) copied the request
  • I emailed it to our customer before lunch
  • Simple!

Then there is Joaquin. In an email he allowed us to publish on our website as a Love Letter to My Library, Joaquin said, “Quite frankly, without the Library’s ILL Department, I would be powerless to do what I need to do to get ahead in a remarkably competitive market.” He told us how we’ve provided him with the research needed to write several manuscripts. Each time he publishes, he takes the time to let us know how we’ve helped.

Another customer I’ve enjoyed working with is Ned. Ned and his wife, Patsy, winter in Tucson. Each year, I would receive and process his requests, and snail mail them to The State Archives and Historical Society in South Dakota (a library that doesn’t use the electronic borrowing system).

Why would Ned and Patsy need all this microfilm? Well, because they were working on a very important project, which I’m happy to say they recently finished. With our help, they scanned the entire Camp Crook Range Gazette from 1907-1942 and digitized it so it would be searchable for future researchers. He plans to write a book detailing the activities of his ancestors. 

You see, at the heart of ILL is human connection. I may be behind the scenes, but when I think about Joaquin wrapping up a new project or Ned and his wife Patsy celebrating when they finish their massive undertaking, I smile.

At the Library, we serve everyone; we inspire and connect people; and we love what we do. I’m proud to be part of it all.


Katherine Beckwith is a Technical Services Library Associate and the Interlibrary Loan Manager at Pima County Public Library. She’s also worked as a Library Program Instructor, and the Circulation Manager at Martha Cooper Library. In her spare time, she enjoys volunteering to assist newly arrived refugees. You can also find her crafting—particularly if knitting or sewing is involved.