Open Access in Rural Idaho

Idaho is a unique state. Not only are we proudly one of the least densely populated states in the country, but we also lead the nation in the amount of public land per capita with 60% held by the National Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.[i] Of Idaho’s private land, 22% is used for agriculture, and Idaho is the number one producer of potatoes, trout, lentils and winter peas in the country.[ii]

Idaho also leads the nation in the lowest number of practicing physicians per person in the country (17 for every 10,000)[iii] and is also ranked 50th for wages, per-capita wages, and wage increases since 2007.[iv] Additionally, Idaho has one of the lowest preschool enrollment rates in the country, and has the second largest disparity in the nation between the funding of richer and poorer school districts.[v] Idaho is also at or near the bottom for many measures of academic success, including a ranking of 50th for per-student investment and a ranking of 47th for high school graduates going to college with only 37% of Idahoans seeking post-secondary education.[vi]

As rural state, Idaho has unique needs and challenges. A full 35% of Idaho residents live in rural areas throughout the state,[vii] and those outside of the urban bubble often work with much fewer resources and opportunities.[viii] Individuals in rural areas are more likely to live below the poverty line, to have a lower level of education than their metropolitan counterparts, and are more likely to live in an area without healthcare or educational options.[ix] Across Idaho, roughly 88.6% of residents have a high school diploma or equivalent and 24.7% have a bachelor’s degree or higher,[x] and in rural counties such as Clark County that figure is dramatically shifted. Only 66.1% of Clark County residents have a high school diploma or equivalent and 12.7% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.[xi] Compare those figures to Ada County, which houses the Boise Metropolitan Area, where 93.9% of residents have a high school diploma or equivalent and 35.3% have at least a Bachelor’s degree.[xii]

Public libraries in these rural areas already serve the unique needs of rural patrons, and often are one of the only opportunities rural residents have to continue their education, either formally or informally. Many rural public libraries serve a large number of economically disadvantaged patrons who depend on them for services they cannot afford.[xiii] One of these services is regular access to the internet. Although in most rural areas Internet access is approximately equal to households across the country, lingering differences in use of computers and of the Internet are strongly related to income and education, both of which tend to be lower in rural areas.[xiv] In fact, two recent federal studies found that 70% of Americans without access to high speed internet are in rural areas.[xv]

Through the internet, rural residents have a gateway to unlimited knowledge. With collaborations such as LiLI (, library patrons have access to online tools for “their education, business, and recreational needs.” However, programs such as LiLI are funded many thousands of dollars by the state, grants, foundations, and other organizations in order to pay the fees associated with the scholarly material they provide access to. Wouldn’t an additional way to access scholarly work without paying thousands of dollars be in the best interest of everyone involved?

Such a way exists! But it needs your help.

Open access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.[xvi] Open access materials are most commonly scholarly journal articles made available through agreements between the author and publisher for free, but can also include music, images, and films made available through Creative Commons licenses.[xvii] For educational and research purposes, the peer-reviewed journal article is still the most common and most valued currency, and journal subscriptions can be one of the most expensive items purchased by a library for its patrons.

There has been a lot of discussion about the usefulness of open access materials in the developing world. Many universities in developing nations, although accredited and with quality programs, do not have the funding to provide access to journal subscriptions for their researchers the way most universities do in the United States.[xviii] However, it is vitally important for scientists to be able to read, exchange, and collaborate with each other in order to further their own knowledge and to help improve their countries. Open access provides a unique opportunity for these developing nations to work on equal footing, without political or economic barriers. Caroline Wagner called this developing academic environment the “New Invisible College,” a global networked college based on mutual interests and open sharing of knowledge and free from market control.

Open access seeks to return scholarly publishing to its original purpose: to spread knowledge and allow that knowledge to be built upon. Price barriers should not prevent anyone from getting access to the research they need and the open availability and search-ability of scholarly research will have a significant positive impact on everything from education to the practice of medicine to the ability of entrepreneurs to innovate, which could be especially important in cash-strapped rural areas. Additionally, as taxpayers pay for the funding that goes to publicly funded research projects, rural Idahoans (and everyone else) has the right to access the research that we invested in.

Many of the poor ratings Idaho has in education have to do with a lack of funding. The economy is hard, and the available funding for school districts has been steadily decreasing. The lack of funding leads to a low number of high school graduates and a lower number of college graduates, despite a growing need for a highly educated workforce. Rural areas, which usually see the most cut-backs and financial struggles, have the most to gain from a wealth of free educational resources made available through open access. Additionally, one of the biggest challenges facing all libraries, but especially small and rural libraries, is maintaining adequate funding to provide an increasingly complex range of services.[xix]

Although I have only been an Idaho resident for two years, I know that this state is more than low educational rankings and potatoes. Idaho has a determination to grow and a strength to see through tough choices and changes, and I’d like to see this state be something more than a statistic, more than an opportunity for growth that was wasted. Open access can be a controversial topic, but for Idaho this should be an easy solution. There are no budget decisions to make, no contracts to sign, and no limits or expectations. Open access materials are a valuable resource made available for free, and since there is no marketing budget for these materials it is up to us to broadcast their importance and relevance to our patrons and to the state generally.

Annie Gaines is the Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of Idaho Library.

[i] Western States Data: Public Land Acreage (FS & BLM), Percentage of Land Base, and Population. November 13, 2007:

[ii] Idaho Department of Commerce: Visit Idaho – Facts About Idaho:

[iii] Health: 10 Worst States for Women’s Health:,,20604649_4,00.html

[iv] The Spokesman-Review: Idaho’s Average Wages Worst in Nation – Betsy Z. Russell, January 2, 2014:

[v] Takepart: The 5 Best States for Education (and the 5 Worst) – Andrew Freeman, Februaru 26, 2013:

[vi] StateMaster: Idaho Education Statistics:

[vii] Rural Assistance Center – Idaho:

[viii] StateImpact: Idaho – It’s More Expensive to ‘Get By’ in Rural Idaho than Boise – Emilie Ritter Saunders, July 10, 2013:

[ix] StateImpact: Idaho – Idaho’s Uninsured: Rural Counties Post Highest Rates, Molly6 Messick, August 29, 2012

[x] United States Census Bureau – State & County Quickfacts, Idaho:

[xi] United States Census Bureau – State & County Quickfacts, Clark County, Idaho:

[xii] United States Census Bureau – State & County Quickfacts, Ada County, Idaho:

[xiii] Scott Alan Smith (2014) The future of small rural public libraries in America: a report prepared for the board of the Langlois Public Library, Public Library Quarterly, 33:1, 83-85, DOI: 10.1080/01616846.2013.848138

[xiv] Edward J. Malecki. Digital development in rural areas: potentials and pitfalls, Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 19, Issue 2, April 2003, Pages 201-214, ISSN 0743-0167,


[xv] StateImpact: Ohio – Rural Schools Struggle to Prepare for Common Core’s Online Tests, Ida Lieszkovszky, March 21, 2013:

[xvi] Peter Suber, A Very Brief Introduction to Open Access:

[xvii] Creative Commons Search:

[xviii] Cherry Mae Ignacio. Opinion: Open Access for the 3rd World, The Scientist. March 21, 2013:–Open-Access-for-the-3rd-World/

[xix] Scott Alan Smith (2014) The future of small rural public libraries in America: a report prepared for the board of the Langlois Public Library, Public Library Quarterly, 33:1, 83-85, DOI: 10.1080/01616846.2013.848138

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