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Urban Land Institute

Assistance Panel 

Tell Us Your Thoughts 

Library Square Presentation and Final Report

Library Square Background

The Salt Lake City Library today is a stunningly unique piece of architecture that has come to represent the beauty and elegance that is Salt Lake City. In its early stages the Salt Lake City Library System struggled to maintain a presence in downtown. Initially started in 1872 a small group of women known as the Ladies Library Association opened a 400-book reading room in the First Security Building. However Salt Lake City’s first ‘library’ was short lived and closed in 1876. In 1877 the Masonic Order established the Masonic Public Library and increased the number of available volumes to 10,000. This was also short lived as it lacked both financial and public support.

Utah became an official State in 1896 and with it came new legislature, establishing free public libraries for the residents of Salt Lake City. The Free Public Library of Salt Lake City opened in 1898 and was located on the top floor of the City and County Building. By 1900 the collections housed in the Free Public Library reached over 14,000; this proved too great for the current location, and soon talks of a new library came about. With a $20,000 donation by way of land, the City had found a new home for the Salt Lake City Library. It opened in 1905 and was housed there until 1964. As the collection continued to grow so did the need for a new space. A new library was built on the corner of 500 South and 200 East and opened in 1964. This building would later be known as the Hansen Planetarium Building, and eventually become home to The Leonardo.

Shortly after Salt Lake City’s Library System 100th anniversary, discussion for a bigger and more accommodating space was warranted. Several months after, a bond was approved for $65 million to completely transform the entire block now known as Library Square. The Salt Lake City Library as we know it today first broke ground in 2000, and opened in 2003. Since its completion the Salt Lake City Library has received an immense amount of praise and numerous awards. Today the Salt Lake City Library circulates about 4 million items and has over 140,000 registered library card holders. Each year City Libraries draw an annual crowd of more than 3.7 million people, making the system the second most visited attraction in Utah.

As the new library came to fruition, so did new understanding of how people use and interact with libraries and other public spaces. During the design process both library staff and architects collaborated and discussed the priorities of the new library. “We don’t have a central gathering place in Salt Lake. We wanted a place where everyone became welcome.” said Library Director Nancy Tessman who served as Director from 1996-2007. Tessman instinctively knew that younger generations would use libraries and public spaces differently than their predecessors. To this end she stated:

 “It’s a mistake not to be responsive to the new generation and how they communicate. Our idea is that it’s not just about books, but all the arts. Our job is to stimulate the mind, eyes and ears.”

Today Library Square, and its adjoining blocks, create a Civic Campus that houses numerous festivals, parades, and events. However, more often than not the Square sits empty and unused. It is to this end that we, and our partners, are interested in a continuing effort to reimagine and reinvigorate this Civic Campus.