Interlibrary Loan Saved Me $160

Wherein the author uses online tools to track down an elusive family history book offered on the secondary market, and a much less expensive work-around

I am researching four different Porter families, three collateral and one direct. At least one of them (John Porter, ca. 1730-ca. 1804) had ties to Virginia, specifically Rockbridge County, and its predecessor counties: Augusta, Botetourt and Orange. So, when I learned of a Porter family history book from Rockbridge County, Virginia, I just had to have a look. Problem is, I’m in Washington state and I was unable to find the book locally. Enter WorldCat.

For those researchers unfamiliar with WorldCat, it is a network of more than 10,000 participating libraries world-wide and is arguably the largest online library catalog. It is the first place to check if your local library doesn’t have an item. Not all libraries are linked into WorldCat, but it will give you an idea of just how widely available an item may be.

To use WorldCat, go to In my case, I know I’m looking for a book, so I selected the book tab first.

(Click on an image to enlarge it, then click your browser’s “back” button to return to the article.)

WorldCat search

I entered my search terms…william porter rockbridge virginia

WorldCat: Porter search terms

…and got two hits. The top entry was the book I was after.

WorldCat hits on my search terms

Clicking the title link will take you to a list of libraries that have the item arranged, by default, by libraries closest to your given location.

Libraries that have the Porter family history

When I first conducted my search in 2011, two libraries in Utah showed up on the list as being closest to my home, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City being one of them. Since I was planning a trip to Utah in January 2012 for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, I added the Porter book to my to-do list. Unfortunately, when I visited, the book was not on the shelf. Was it in use already on that early Saturday morning? I approached patrons in the first floor reading room. No one was using it. I approached the young man working the volunteer desk, who kindly offered that the book may have been removed for digitizing.

“But”, I countered, “your catalog says it’s available. Wouldn’t the catalog reflect the fact that it had been removed for digitization?” Initially, I allowed his answer to deter me on my quest.

@AncestorRoundup tweet about missing family history bookHowever, each time I visited, I found myself increasingly anxious. After all, I had traveled hundreds of miles, and consulting the Porter book was at the top of my to-do list. Long story short, I (nicely) pestered a number of volunteers in the reading room over the next week about the book. They had no record of the book being removed for digitizing, so they ultimately declared the book “missing” – which is why you won’t find the Family History Library in the list of results on WorldCat any longer.

FHL catalog entry showing missing book

How else to get my hands on a copy of that book? Perhaps I could find a copy on the used book market. I checked eBay, alibris, and AbeBooks, and struck out each time. Finally, I checked Amazon. Yup, they had it. One used copy – for $165.00!

I tried to rationalize spending $165.00 for a book I had never seen, that I wasn’t sure even contained information on my John Porter. I almost decided to pull the trigger, when I remembered Interlibrary Loan. Why not try that first? Although I had heard many libraries were doing away with interlibrary loan (ILL) due to funding cuts, I learned that my local library in Seattle was still offering the service for a mere $5.00. Considering the alternative, it was a bargain.

Seattle Public Library Interlibrary Loan informationThe Seattle Public Library (SPL) has made accessing items through ILL very straight-forward. You are able to fill out the form online, pay the $5.00 fee online via PayPal, and then when the book arrives, they send you a notice through e-mail. In my case, they advised it could take up to three weeks for the book to be received. I was pleasantly surprised when the book arrived in less than a week.

TIP: when ordering through ILL, if the St. Louis County Library shows up in your list of results as having an item note that fact, and the call number, in the ILL form.

SPL Ill form comment fieldThe St. Louis County Library became the repository of the entire National Genealogical Society’s library collection in 2001, and by its very nature, books held in this special collection are available for loan.

The elusive Porter book with ILL receiptThe elusive book: A Family History, William Porter, Jr. of Rockbridge County, Virginia (1740-1804).

As it turns out, I already had more information on John Porter of Rockbridge County, Virginia (brother of William Porter, Jr. in the title) than presented in the 1984 Porter book, so my $5.00 was well-spent indeed.