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Chances are that while doing a literature search, you came across a reference or a link to a paper that your institutional library didn’t have access to. Yes, it sucks. But what to do?

If you’re on Twitter, you might post the citation with the hashtag “#icanhazpdf” (a play on “I can haz cheeseburger” meme), and the denizens of the intertubes will scuttle off to check and see if they have access themselves.  If they do, they’ll send you a quick message to exchange contact info, and email you the paper.  Baddabing, baddaboom.

But not really.

First off, it’s against the terms of service under which the institution buys access to journals.  Some may call it illegal.  But things not being legal hasn’t stopped the internet before.

More importantly, I think, is that it funnels traffic away from your library’s Inter-Library Loan (ILL) department.  See, librarians are all about counting stuff.  Those notices telling you not to reshelve books?  It’s not because they think you’ll put it back in the wrong place (at least, that’s not the main reason) – it’s because they want to record that book’s use in the library.

Like it or not, but many decisions about what goes on in your library is based on these kinds of user statistics.  When I lived in Newfoundland, we had a fantastic Map Library with some of the only computers on campus that had GIS at the time.  I signed in using their sheet at the door every time.  The librarians can then go to their managers and say “See! Lots of people are using the GIS computers! We have data!”.  This applies to almost every library service out there – reference desk questions, signing out books, attending workshops and other programs … and the ILL department.

When you request an article (or book, or chapter, or thesis or microfiche, or …) through ILL, your institution searches grand catalogues of multiple libraries (like AMICUS or WordCat) to see who *does* have access to the item in question.  They then request it through the lending library’s ILL department, who ships it out.  Sometimes within hours.  Your library pays a (usually nominal) fee to cover copyright and staff time, and you get the item you requested.  Rarely, if ever, is this fee passed along to the patron (i.e., paying for ILL requests is a small part of your library’s budget).

True, it’s not as fast as sending out a tweet to your hundreds of followers (and those monitoring the #icanhazpdf hashtag), but it makes your libraries look at what they don’t have access to, and can inform future purchasing decisions.  If they get a spate of requests for The Journal of Lab and Field, for example, at some point it will be less costly to subscribe rather than bring in individual articles.  Good librarians will also see this trend, and recommend regardless of the price difference.

By circumventing your library (and the fantastic folks that work there), you don’t get counted, and neither does your request.  If ILL requests drop significantly, libraries may reduce ILL staff, or lower their ILL budget, meaning poorer service for us all.  It also means that libraries don’t know which journals that aren’t in their current collection are in demand by its patrons.  Conversely, if you can be bothered to use your library’s off-site access (usually via a proxy server; check your library’s website or ask a librarian if you don’t know how this works at your institution [and get counted, too!]), and get articles outside the library system (e.g., from the #icanhazpdf hashtag), your use of the journal your library is already subscribed to won’t be logged.  When there are budget shortfalls, managers often look at periodical subscriptions (digital and print) for those that aren’t being used.

Some (well, most) things don’t come in PDF, and not everything is online or at your local library/branch.  It takes some serious skills to search out and find articles from partial citations, foreign-language literature (not to be ignored!), and out-of-the-way tomes on a bewildering array of subjects.

During my PhD and postdoc, I had an insanely large number of ILLs and only ONCE could the library not fill it (and to be fair, it was a PhD thesis from Russia, published in 1940).

So the next time you’re looking for an article, send off an ILL request and get counted.