Check It Out: Literary Treasures and the (Uncensored) Books of Eli – Daniel F. Gray

From its first edition in the now-immortal Swanson Hall, to its current incarnation adjacent to the Rendezvous Complex, ISU’s bastion of bound illumination has been both a driver and co-conspirator in the physical and intellectual shaping of campus life.  With a reach extending far beyond its walls, the ISU Library has succeeded in making an impact both at the local level and on the national stage.  Unfettered intellectual growth, and the physical expansion required to meet that need, has been its dominant theme for the best of a century.

Beginning life in a single room in the Academy of Idaho’s Swanson Hall in 1902, 1925 saw an opportunity to stretch out in the Idaho Technical Institute’s freshly-completed Frazier Hall.  This new facility, with its homage to Beaux Arts and  classical revival stylings, would devote a sizable share of its second story to the library proper, as well as additional book storage on the first level and a museum on the third.[1]  A dedicated lift allowed material transfer and convenient access to the main reading area and librarian’s office, which together consumed the whole of the building’s width.[2]

Stagnation was not to be the library’s fate.  As the Idaho State College’s curriculum and enrollment grew, so did the demand for an increased volume of resources.  The space required by these volumes soon made obvious the need for the library and museum to have their own dedicated structure, a need addressed in 1954.  With funding thanks to a state appropriation of $750 000, both staff and  assets found a more spacious home in  a new, seventy-six thousand square foot structure, one now familiar to all as the Idaho Museum of Natural History.[3]  This location would serve its purpose well for over twenty years, the library in that time expanding its holdings tenfold.[4]  Now known as the Idaho State University Library, it found itself once again the victim of its own success.  It was predicted as early as the 1960s that spatial restrictions would require either extensive remodeling, elimination or relocation of the museum, or the construction of a new building.[5]

The latter of these options would prove the path to the future, though that future began with a measure of uncertainty.  The state legislature, originally unwilling to fund the venture, was finally persuaded by a spirited publicity campaign involving ten billboards, fifty letters to the editor and thirty thousand bumper stickers.[6]  Funding of five million dollars was secured, and the project was underway.  Planned by head librarian Eli Oboler and designed by Sundberg and Associates, construction of  the building was completed and doors opened in 1977.[7]  The new facility was at the time of its re-naming dedication  in April 1983 “the largest building ever constructed for educational purposes in Idaho.”[8] This dedication, after which the edifice would be known as the Eli M. Oboler Library, was an event years in the making.

Oboler, referenced at his retirement ceremony as “the premier university librarian of the entire United States” and named University Librarian Emeritus by ISU President Dr. Myron Collier, earned this honor not only through his thirty-one years of service to the university, but through an entire career filled with varied accomplishments.[9]  In addition to overseeing a staff of forty-five and a collection of well over three hundred thousand volumes, he authored three books and two hundred articles, published five hundred reviews, and edited three magazines.[10]  His receipt of the 1976 Robert B. Downs Award for Intellectual Freedom was the culmination, though by no means the end, of decades spent in activism and staunch opposition to censorship, discrimination,  and informational suppression.[11]  In 1965 his proposed amendment to the ALA constitution, one which called for barring from membership any institution that discriminated against library users, was unanimously approved by the American Library Association.[12] After his death, Oboler, described as a  “champion of intellectual freedom who demanded the dismantling of all barriers to freedom of expression,”  would be further honored by the ALA.[13]   The Eli M. Oboler Memorial Award, presented biennially, is awarded to the “best published work in the area of intellectual freedom.”[14]   Fitting it is, then, that the building he helped plan should bear his name.

That building remains a central feature of campus, both physically and academically.  As Eastern Idaho’s Federal Depository Library for 110 years, it serves a crucial role both locally and beyond.  Home to the Idaho Health Sciences Library, the Arthur P. Oliver Law Library, and one of the most robust and diverse special collections departments in the intermountain area, it, much like its most famous castellan, has cemented its position in the history of southern Idaho.

And if that history is any guide, this isn’t even its final form.


Works Cited

American Library Association Intellectual Freedom Round Table.  “Eli M. Oboler Memorial Award.”,  April 6, 2016.   Document ID: 46a4d658-c79a-dc84-d580-febdd42f20a9  (Accessed December 2, 2018)

“Barbs and Bouquets.”  Eli Oboler Retirement Dinner and Roast, 1980.  Box 29, MC 042  Eli M. Oboler Papers.  Oboler Library, Special Collections.  Idaho State University.

“Buildings Histories.”  MC 091.  Oboler Library, Special Collections.  Idaho State University.

“Dedication Ceremony Program” Eli M. Oboler Library Dedication 20 April 1983. Box 29, MC 042 Eli M. Oboler Papers.  Oboler Library, Special Collections.  Idaho State University.

“Eli M. Oboler: The Eli M. Oboler Library Building.”    Idaho State University LibGuides.

Idaho State Historic Preservation Office. “ISU Survey 2 August 1994.” Property Data, Idaho Historic Sites Inventory.  Box 4, Folder 1,  Sm Mc 049.  Oboler Library, Special Collections.  Idaho State University.

News Bureau, Admin Building.  “News from Idaho State University: ALA Accepts Oboler Resolution.”  16 July 1965.  Box 36 Folder 1, MC 042- Eli M. Oboler Papers.  Oboler Library, Special Collections.  Idaho State University.

Oboler, Eli.  “The Building of a Story and the Story of a Building.”  Idaho Librarian 28, No.1, 1976.  Eli M. Oboler Library Periodicals, Z732.1.3.  Pp 6-9.

Wayland and Fennel.  “Blueprint 01.6:  Main Building, Idaho Technical Institute.  Wayland and Fennel, Architects.  Boise, ID.”  Frazier Hall, 1924.  MMC 6.6, Folders 1 and 2.  Oboler Library, Special Collections.  Idaho State University.


[1] Idaho State Historic Preservation Office, Survey of  2 Aug 1994, 2-3.

[2] Wayland and Fennel, Blueprint 01.6

[3] ISU Buildings Histories, ISU Library: Construction Costs

[4] Ibid,  ISU Library: Use.

[5] Ibid, ISU Library: General Information

[6] Oboler, Eli, “The Building of a Story and the Story of a Building,” Idaho Librarian Vol. 28 Issue 1, 8-9

[7] ISU LibGuides, “The Eli M. Oboler Library Building”

[8] Eli M. Oboler Library Dedication Program,  20 April 1983

[9] “Barbs and Bouquets”  Eli Oboler Retirement Dinner and Roast, 1980

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] News Bureau, Admin Building, “News Release: ALA Accepts Oboler Resolution”  16 July 1965

[13] ALA Intellectual Freedom Round Table, “Eli M. Oboler Memorial Award”

[14] Ibid.