Friday, September 24, 2010

In Praise of the Interlibrary Loan

Bishop Asser, in his ninth century Life of Alfred, tells a story about Alfred the Great that illustrates the king's lifelong love of learning and also the precious nature of books in that period:
On a certain day, therefore, his mother was showing him and his brother a book of Saxon poetry, which she held in her hand, and said, "Whichever of you shall the soonest learn this volume shall have it for his own." Stimulated by these words, or rather by the Divine inspiration, and allured by the beautifully illuminated letter at the beginning of the volume, he spoke before all his brothers, who, though his seniors in age, were not so in grace, and answered, "Will you really give that book to one of us, that is to say, to him who can first understand and repeat it to you?" At this his mother smiled with satisfaction, and confirmed what she had before said. Upon which the boy took the book out of her hand, and went to his master to read it, and in due time brought it to his mother and recited it.
In ninth century England a book, hand-copied and beautifully illuminated, was a significant prize to obtain. In our modern era, with the invention of the printing press and now the e-book, it is usually not necessary to go to such lengths as Alfred did to acquire a title we need. Or is it?

As I began my research for Road from the West: A Novel of the First Crusade (my current novel-in-the-works), I found myself becoming more and more intrigued by the character of Tancred, a young Norman knight from Southern Italy. Before I could put a stop to it, he had weaseled his way into becoming the protagonist of my novel. At that point I knew that I needed more individual information on him than summary sources of the Crusade could provide.

I discovered that although there are no modern biographies of Tancred, Robert Lawrence Nicholson had written a dissertation on him at the University of Chicago in 1940. Tancred: a study of his career and work in their relation to the first crusade and the establishment of the Latin states in Syria and Palestine--isn't the name just too scintillating? Where could I find a copy of such wonderfulness? Nowhere in Oregon it seemed and nowhere online for under $300.

I contacted the University of Chicago Library to ask if I could borrow the aforementioned title. The librarian courteously explained that the only way to do so was to go through the interlibrary loan system at my local library. I had never used this system before (frankly, if the library doesn't have a book and I want it badly enough, I just go ahead and purchase it on Amazon), but now it seemed like the only option. I went to the reference desk at the Oregon City library, and the rest was history. Two weeks later I had a copy of a seemingly unobtainable book in my hands with very little exertion and no expense on my part.

Thanks to Benjamin Franklin for establishing the first library in America, and thanks to the Internet for connecting library collections around the country. Nowadays, finding a book, even one as rare as Nicholson's dissertation, is as easy as asking a librarian.

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