DOCLINE: Connecting Medical Libraries for 35 Years

Guest post by Lisa Theisen, Head of NLM’s Collection Access Section and Elisabeth (Lis) Unger, NLM DOCLINE Team Lead

It’s been 35 years since NLM’s interlibrary loan (ILL) request routing system, DOCLINE®, was launched with a goal of enabling medical libraries to get biomedical literature into the hands of people who need it as efficiently and quickly as possible. Today, DOCLINE continues to be used daily by nearly 2,000 hospital, academic, military, public, and other libraries that place approximately one million requests a year, including requests for newly published research not freely available online.

DOCLINE’s foundation and success stems from NLM’s collaboration with the Regional Medical Libraries of the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) to support resource sharing among the medical library community. Resource sharing through ILL means that participating libraries don’t have to own as many books and journals or collect as broad a range of topics because they can borrow from each other. Full participation is limited to libraries in the NNLM and Canada, but some international libraries use the system to place requests directly with NLM.

DOCLINE service is fast and use of the system is free. This service allows a wide range of libraries, including hospital libraries (which account for 60% of DOCLINE participants), to obtain articles for their patrons that are not in their own collections.

This is where DOCLINE fills a critical gap by connecting a wide network of librarians who are always ready to help each other out, often without charge. Without DOCLINE, access to literature outside of a library’s collection is severely curtailed.

When DOCLINE first launched on mainframe computers in 1985, finding a ‘copy’ of an article or a library with the right issue of a print journal was not as easy as performing a simple search online. If you had a modem and access to an NLM account, you might check SERHOLD, the NLM database of medical libraries’ serial holdings – or journal titles libraries report subscribing to. Then you could mail, or maybe fax, an ILL form to the library and request that they mail your library a photocopy of the article. 

Over the decades, DOCLINE evolved in response to technological advancements and user needs. Features and enhancements have been added to DOCLINE throughout the years to make the system faster and easier to use. DOCLINE has grown to include new ways to send copies of articles, such as emailing PDFs, and adapted to new ways that publishers offer content, including electronic journals and “epub ahead of print” articles found in NLM’s PubMed biomedical literature citation database, and borrowers now see alerts to free, full-text articles found in NLM’s PubMed Central (PMC) digital archive.

Around the turn of the century, DOCLINE 1.0 moved to the world wide web – at the same time email use was becoming more widespread. In 2003, DOCLINE 2.0 was released with a new user-friendly look and feel; in 2006 it was updated to allow a library to indicate “Urgent Patient Care” to expedite service for use in emergencies in the hospital setting. The latest version, DOCLINE 6.0, debuted in November 2018. The three core system components, 1) the user library records, 2) their collective biomedical journal listings, and 3) ILL requests, would still be familiar to a user of the original system, even though the website looks very different today. DOCLINE also includes indicators for supplementary data sets and journal embargoes which didn’t exist in its early days.

What made DOCLINE remarkable in 1985 and remains its most intricate, complex feature, is the efficient way in which requests are automatically matched to appropriate lenders based on their reported journal holdings. This ensures that DOCLINE’s average length of time to fill a request and the percentage of filled requests continues to be high compared to other ILL systems – advancing NLM’s mission of enabling biomedical research and supporting health care and public health. This means that clinicians who rely on medical librarians to obtain the most relevant and latest research articles cited in PubMed, for instance on COVID-19 treatments, can rely on DOCLINE.

Continued updates to DOCLINE underscore the commitment to advance NLM’s strategic goals to reach more people in more ways through enhanced dissemination and engagement, and to engage a wide range of audiences to ensure the “right information gets delivered to them at the right time.” For instance, in April of this year, a ‘Print Resources Available’ filter was added to the system to enable user librarians working remotely from home to connect with libraries that still had access to their physical collection.

In its 35-year history, over 65 million ILL requests have been completed by libraries using DOCLINE. NLM is proud to provide the system and values the work of libraries that generously and unflaggingly share with one another, making DOCLINE a system that has been widely embraced by the user community over the years. We are looking forward to what the next 35 years mean for DOCLINE – teleporting articles anyone?

Are you a part of the DOCLINE community? How has ILL helped you?

Lisa Theisen began serving as Head of the Collection Access Section in the Public Services Division in March 2020. Ms. Theisen has been at NLM for 13 years, supporting DOCLINE and NLM’s Interlibrary Loan (ILL) operation.

Elisabeth Unger, MLIS, joined NLM’s Public Access Division, Collection Access Section, Systems Unit in 2008 to support DOCLINE and NLM ILL after working at the National Agricultural Library. In 2005 she became DOCLINE Team Lead where she was responsible for the latest redesign and relaunch of the esteemed system.

4 thoughts on “DOCLINE: Connecting Medical Libraries for 35 Years

  1. It really is an amazing system. When I talk about Docline to people in non-medical libraries, they’re surprised that we can get articles so quickly and efficiently, and all we have to do is put the PMID into the system–it takes care of the rest!

  2. Docline and NLM are the example of how OCLC and Library of Congress *COULD/SHOULD* work. It’s not even close how much better you are.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. We are happy to learn that DOCLINE has withstood the test of time and still provides a valuable service to our customers, lenders and borrowers both.

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