Interlibrary Loan is the Prototypical Red Balloon Project

Hoisted from the defunct Tran|Script blog. Originally published August 11, 2011.

New projects need prototypes. When twitter first came out, people often asked me what it was. And to the extent I told them it was an entirely new thing they would tune out. I realized very quickly however that there were two ways to describe it that got people to sign up — to bloggers, I described it as microblogging. To others, I described it as a “mailing list for text messages.”

Jon Udell has talked about this phenomenon. I can’t find the post at the moment, but most successful explanations of new ideas run along the “It’s like X, but Y” line:

  • Email is like mail, but it’s on your computer
  • Web Search is like searching your computer, except it’s the web
  • Blogging is a journal you publish to everybody (c.2003 explanation)
  • Twitter is like a group mailing list, but for text messages
  • or, Twitter is like a blog, but for all the things too small for blogging
  • YouTube is Public Access Cable for the Internet (c.2005 explanation)
  • Scribd is like YouTube for documents
  • Google Wave is like …. um … well, you see what happens when you don’t have an analogue….We’ll miss you Google Wave

Anyway, I’ve been looking for prototypes for AASCU’s Red Balloon Project that are accessible to people, and take the geekiness out of the idea of applying networked approaches to higher educations pressing problems. Things that are common experiences, but show networked approaches in action.

Here’s my first prototype. It begins with this guy, Joseph Rowell:

We’ll come to Rowell’s place in history and how it relates to ILL in a minute. But first, let me say this, you can’t read the history of this guy without crushing on him a bit. Here’s a bit from his bio over at the UC Berkeley site:

In July of 1874, Rowell graduated with 22 others—the second graduating class in the history of the University and the first to have received instruction on the Berkeley campus. At graduation Rowell was appointed Recorder of the Faculties, Secretary to President Gilman, and Lecturer in English. But the following year, he received the entirely unsolicited and unexpected appointment of University Librarian.

New to librarianship, Rowell toured other libraries seeking advice. He described his experience with characteristic enthusiasm and aplomb.

“An ignorant young man from western wilds, armed with not a single letter of introduction, but only a card bearing his own name and title, barged into the sanctums of librarians of high and low degree, was welcomed with cordiality everywhere, and was given every possible facility and help in his investigations. How proud I am to be admitted to the ranks of a profession officered by such scholars and—gentlemen! Freely have I received; freely must I give.”– Joseph C. Rowell, The Beginnings of a Great Library: Reminiscences

It’s sometimes funny to me how networked learning and open education people are treated as blue-sky techno-utopians. My sense is that if you put a nineteenth century guy like Joe in a room of university administrators today, he’d most likely end up drinking with Brian Lamb and Jim Groom. [What the heck happened to us in the 20th century? How’d we sink to such a state of learned helplessness?]

In any case,  young Joe Rowell, looking at the lack of books on his new library’s shelves, came up with a neat idea:

In the absence of sufficient funds, Rowell turned beggar and borrower, and many were the additions, permanent or temporary, which resulted from his tireless activity… In 1886, Rowell advocated (and practised without official sanction) interlibrary book loans. The benefits were so evident that the Regents finally, in 1894 and again in 1898, gave their approval to this device, now so well known. Thus, the first officially approved interlibrary loaning of books in the United States was initiated by Rowell. Today any citizen of the State, through his local city or county library, may borrow books from the University Library.

It’s probably unnecessary giving all this history, but I want to really drive home how old an idea this is. Or maybe not so much that this idea is old, but that it was thought of by somebody, on a particular day. And given that it was not initially officially sanctioned, the idea was not obvious until people saw it work.

I’ve taken a long time coming to my point, but here we are. There is not a single professor or administrator in your University that has not used Interlibrary Loan. And if we look at what Interlibrary Loan has done, it has made every institution stronger. It has resulted in research being done that could not otherwise have been done, and as a result, probably resulted in lives being saved, and human knowledge being greatly enlarged. It has guaranteed that students from small state schools have had access to the best education. It has reduced cost and increased quality. It has advanced democracy. It has benefitted students and professors alike.

But Interlibrary Loan wasn’t given to us by the Gods. We didn’t arrive as a species to find it in place.  My guess is it wasn’t just invented by Rowell either, but that like most of these things it was invented a lot of places all at once.

But it was invented. There was a certain point in history where people started to realize that the infrastructure they had — whether it was the mail system, or the newly cataloged collections, or what have you — this infrastructure combined with an eye for common gains could result in a better life for everybody.

That’s what Red Balloon is for me. It’s the search for ideas as powerful as Interlibrary Loan, ideas where we find out that if we work together, and get out of our narrow institutional frameworks, we can change the world.

My favorite quote in Rowell’s story is when he is first given the job as librarian. He asks if the position is permanent. Professor Sill (history omits his first name, unfortunately) reflects on the fate of the struggling fledgling institution, which is only in its seventh year.  ”As permanent as that of any of us,” he replies.

For different reasons, in this world of furloughs, layoffs, downsizing, and the like, that reply feels about right today. Like Rowell, we are looking at an uncertain future, scarce resources, and seemingly insurmountable challenges.

We can think small, and engage in the narrow thinking that says what we have is ours alone, and that the boundaries of our institutions are absolute. We can see the world as a zero-sum problem and get back to solving the issues of our individual institutions.

Or we can look at the vast opportunities made available by an infrastructure Rowell would have died for — the Internet, teleconferencing, next-day mail, online social networks, social micropayments, collaborative software, regional travel, print-on-demand, cheap digital video, screencasting, crowdsourcing, mobile phones — and say what’s the opportunity here? And more especially — what is the opportunity if we use this technology and infrastructure not as discrete institutional assets, but as an architecture for us all to collectively advance the common good?

Joe had a mail system, a card catalog, and a good attitude, and he invented an InterLibrary Loan system out of that. We have technology undreamed of back then.

Surely we can think of something to do with it, right?

2 thoughts on “Interlibrary Loan is the Prototypical Red Balloon Project

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