Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Inter-library loans - a French fairy tale

Here is the post I had submitted for the CILIP Blogger Challenge. If you haven't yet, you should go and have a look at the highly commended entries, they're really great!

[EDIT:] If you want to go further, here is a page in English about Sudoc by Émilie Liard (who I mention further down this post). And here is the page (in French) where she links to all her posts on the subject (she published a couple new posts since I wrote this article).

I’d like to tell you a story. It involves a charming prince, a troublesome monster and an army of determined villagers. It's also about inter-library loans.

Our story begins in France. As a French librarian, I'm well placed to tell you that libraries there are rarely praised for anything. We look over in awe at the UK’s 24/7 opening hours in university libraries, your idea stores and how you’re ready to fight to keep libraries open despite budget cuts. But I also think there might be a thing or two you could learn from how things are done on the other side of the Channel.

When I started my first library job in London, I was shocked to discover that librarians here weren't participating in a shared catalogue with other HE libraries – something I’d taken for granted while working in France. So how, I asked, do you fulfil inter-library loans? Well, "inter-library loan" often seems to be a synonym for "asking the British Library if they have it". I learned about SCONUL and its access scheme, and about getting records for documents from other sources. But, to me, it still felt like something was missing.

Nostalgia overwhelmed me, and I began thinking of le Sudoc...


Once upon a time, in 1994, on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean Sea, in the lovely town of Montpellier, was born l'ABES.

This elegant acronym stands for Agence Bibliographique de l'Enseignement Supérieur, France’s bibliographical agency for higher education. Its first aim was to create Sudoc, Système Universitaire de Documentation (universities system for documentation), which it did in 2001, after a seven years of incubation.

Le Sudoc grew up fast. It's become a giant of a catalogue, to which over 1400 higher education and research libraries contribute. Today, it hosts over ten million records of documents, with their exact location (down to the shelfmark) all over France. Its OPAC is easily searchable, and there’s a mobile version proposed too. Through its network of libraries, users from everywhere can access a fully integrated system for inter-library loans, which is called PEB (for Prêt Entre Bibliothèques) in French.

Also, having this huge shared catalogue allows HE librarians to spend a lot less time cataloguing: on a good day, this means checking that your document already exists in the database, that the record contains no mistakes and then just adding a mention at the bottom basically meaning "we have it too!".

It's an amazing tool and treasured by students, researchers and librarians alike.


But le Sudoc has a dark side. Behind the princely, charming exterior, lurks a fanged beast from a bygone age, ready to thwart many a noble quest.

Its main problem is its back end, which is not quite as handsome as its friendly user interface.

The database is accessed through a software right out of the 90s, called WinIBW (or, once you're acquainted with it and it’s just died in the middle of a two-page long record losing the information forever, you're more likely to call it "Putain de Bordel de Winnie de Merde!" – a phrase that’s a little too indelicate to translate here).

You can have a look at its interface here to get an idea:

WinIBW is ancient. It's unintuitive and crawling with bugs too.

One of my favourites is "le bug de la ligne 16", which occurs because, in an earlier version, lists used to appear in pages of 16 items. So now, once in a while, when you click on an item past line 16, it will display the record corresponding to the one on line 16. Charmingly eccentric, perhaps. But it quickly becomes tiresome.

The records are displayed in UNIMARC, a 1977 version of MARC mostly used in France. The data capture area is basically a blank screen where you can write your record entirely by hand. Not super-helpful when you're new to cataloguing. It's been made slightly better by the creation of helpful macros that will automatically add the fields most often used for the type of document you're creating. But if the field you need doesn't appear, you're on your own.

If, as I explained above, le Sudoc has made it quick and easy to catalogue new, commonly used documents, it loses all its advantages when you have to retro-catalogue older items. Yes, some of your 19th century books might have been catalogued already by someone else, but for most of them, you're going to have to create your record from scratch, taking your chances with the temperamental WinIBW interface.

Also, as is bound to happen when you've got thousands of people working on one common tool, there are lots of duplicates. Once in a while, campaigns are led to remove them, but a week doesn't pass when you have to send messages to other libraries asking them to check if they're sure that their new record isn't really a duplicate of an existing one. And you can expect to receive your fair share of the same kind of requests, of course.

Finally, not everything's rosy on the users' end either. To get a loan, you must be affiliated to a library. The book you ask for will arrive to the library, not on your doorstep. And it can take quite some time to arrive, since there's usually only one ILL officer per library, to take care of all the requests and scan them or send them by post. And it can be a laborious task. ILL officers have to keep up with the loans by hand, and since it's a library-to-library service with no direct contact with the end user, sending reminders for late documents can be a challenge. Perhaps inevitably, there’s unrest…


For years, the library villagers lived with le Sudoc’s half-prince, half-beast nature. They nurtured it the best they could. But back in their homes, in the dead of night, they would talk. Had the time come to slay the beast within? Or could it be tamed?

Has the story so far convinced you of how impractical and complicated this all is? Have you pictured thousands of French librarians pulling their hair out in despair after falling victim to another of Winnie’s bugs? Do you wonder why they haven’t tried to escape??

Well, the answer is, I think, there’s an element of Stockholm Syndrome. We wail and whine and despair, but we go back to the task. We find the ancient interface "charming" and "vintage" – in many ways, we truly are captivated. We often just laugh sadly when the next bug strikes. The adversities of the system have actually brought us together in a community of traumatised cataloguers.

In French university libraries, when you arrive on your first cataloguing job, you're sent on a three-and-a-half-day course to be introduced to the great Winnie. You come back, now an official member of the WinIBW's cult, with a folder full of documentation and a new mantra: "F1 for help". From now on, you're going to hit the F1 key approximately every five minutes to get to the online help and check all the crucial information on the various UNIMARC fields and subfields that’s missing from the software.

If F1 is not enough, you can then ask on the (also ancient, but still very active) "Sucat" mailing-list. But even better than this, is the Twitter community of French librarians. Over the years, I’ve submitted dozens of weird cataloguing questions and got an immediate answer almost every time. We also got into the habit of live tweeting some of our cataloguing sessions. This is a great way to share professional practices and stimulate discussion on some particular cataloguing points.

Tweeting librarians are also very often blogging librarians, and they like to share their tips and tools. For example, Pierre Marige created an online tool to check some key points of new records and shared it on his blog. There’s also Emilie Liard, who, earlier this year, stirred up ideas for how to improve WinIBW in one of her blog posts. She then submitted the suggestions to the ABES group she works with, which is now thinking about what to do next.

So will there be a happily ever after? WinIBW won't be around forever, but le Sudoc hopefully will, and it will get bigger and better. The French library folk are stuck with their charming beast for now, and will treat it with as much patience and good humour as can be mustered.

Of course, the scythes and pitchforks are kept nearby just in case, but the day to use them hasn't arrived yet. And they know that if they keep talking, keep working, they’ll be stronger for sticking together. The le Sudoc story is far from over and I can’t wait to see what the next chapter will bring...

This blogpost has been kindly edited by the fantastic Anthony Farthing.

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The above picture is by Pier-Luc Bergeron. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.