Interlibrary loans in jeopardy

Shipping books is expensive. I discovered this when I started selling off the last of my academic books via Amazon’s Marketplace program: the shipping credit was never enough to cover the postage, and was sometimes short by several dollars.

In this context, libraries have had a singular advantage: a subsidized rate for interlibrary loans. When I was a graduate student, and required all sorts of obscure, only-one-copy-in-Canada books for my research, I practically lived on interlibrary loans. Rural libraries, whose collections are understandably limited, absolutely rely on it.

But now Canada Post is trying to end the subsidy, which means, suddenly, that cash-strapped libraries will have to pay high rates for books that most will not be able to absorb. Whether or not Canada Post is justified in wanting to save the money, this will kill interlibrary loans as a service, and diminish the available resources of many rural libraries. In some cases, it may well be cheaper to buy the book online. There’s something perverse when shipping from Amazon is free with a minimum purchase, but shipping library books back and forth costs a fortune.

Alternatively, libraries may set up their own, ad hoc shipping services. When the cost of domestic stamps skyrocketed in Germany, I was told, utility companies hired students to deliver notices by hand. Raise the cost of a service, and people will cease using it. Rural libraries may resort to in-house, long-distance deliveries within a regional network — an employee in a minivan — if they can, but resources outside the local pool would remain elusive.

I expect a political solution, though.

Update (July 23): Told you, I did.