Checking in from the library on the hill

This is an exciting week for us here at the University of Idaho Library. Why? Well, this column represents the first time an academic library has appeared in this space and we are excited to have the opportunity to share with you some of the services, collections and resources available to our whole community, including those not affiliated with the university. In the coming months, we’ll occasionally appear here to let you know more about specific offerings, as well as some of the bigger issues concerning libraries and information that are on our minds.

What is the difference between an academic library and public library? Well, the biggest difference is who our primary users are — a public library creates spaces and collections to serve the needs of the general public, while an academic library primarily serves the needs of the university. Obvious, I know, but it’s important enough to mention. To meet the needs of the UI, we offer a variety of different collections in both print and digital formats. Our print collections include books and journals that we’ve purchased over many decades, as well as archives and special collections, government documents and more.

Our online offerings include collections that we’ve digitized and curated ourselves, which are freely available to the public (more on that soon). They also include extensive academic journal and database content which is, sadly, only available to UI users and people working within our building. There is a lot to be said about the deeply problematic economic model of scholarly publishing that results in that content getting locked behind a paywall, but that’s a topic we’ll save for a later column.

Building, maintaining and curating our collections is only one part of what we do. We also offer classroom instruction, one-on-one meetings, and numerous workshops to help our students become more effective researchers and savvier consumers and creators of information. We regularly create and host local and traveling displays and exhibits, sometimes with related programming. We offer technology and support for working with data, GIS, digital scholarship, media production and making, and more. Basically, we are in the business of supporting and enabling scholarly communication in all its forms.

That’s a lot to take in, but what it means is that much of what we offer UI students, faculty, and staff — including our building, collections, displays and exhibits, and programming — is available to everyone, whether or not you are affiliated with UI.

Right now our doors are (temporarily) closed to the general public because of COVID-19 to allow us to prioritize students’ need for socially distanced study space. In normal times, however, community members are welcome to come to the library and enjoy our four floors with hundreds of thousands of books, academic journals, magazines, newspapers, and microfilm, not to mention some very comfortable seating and great views of campus and the Palouse. We look forward to welcoming everyone back into our building again soon.

And if you find something you’d like to check out, any Idaho resident with a valid photo ID can get a community borrower card. We also offer reciprocal borrowing privileges for WSU students and employees. Even now, while our building is closed to the public, we are offering curbside delivery of circulating materials to both university and community users.

In addition to the collections out on our shelves for everyone to browse, we have other areas of the library, like our special collections and archives, that are not open to the public but can be requested for in-house use. Our special collections include rare and valuable items related to the history of the university, state and region, as well as extensive holdings for researching jazz, science fiction and more.

While any researcher can request access to an item from our special collections, our digital collections provide a much easier way for most people to explore many of these fascinating materials online. Our extensive digitized holdings are searchable and browsable on our website at www.lib.uidaho.edu/digital/. You can read about some of our collection highlights by visiting or subscribing to the regularly-updated “Idaho Harvester,” available at harvester.lib.uidaho.edu. While you may find yourself spending hours browsing through our digital collections, there’s even more to explore online — but that will need to wait for a future column.

This is a short and incomplete overview of what the UI Library offers to both the UI and non-UI community. Hopefully, it has given you some things you can start exploring now and also offered a preview of what you’ll see in this space in the future. Until then, we hope you take a moment to look around our online offerings. And if you have any questions, please let us know — we will be happy to do our best to help you.

Ben Hunter is the dean of university libraries at the University of Idaho.

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