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Field Report: Salt Lake City Gets a New Library
By Sarah Bosarge
January 20, 2003

February 8, 2003, marked the one-year anniversary of the opening ceremony of last year's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Residents celebrated with a parade, a fireworks display, and the grand opening of their new central city library.

"For $65 million, it better be something," I heard one resident mumble as I walked towards the entrance. Sixty-eight percent of city residents passed an $84 million bond in 1998 to pay for the new 240,000 square foot library. I don't live here, but am a frequent enough visitor that I have watched with anticipation as the new library has taken shape over the past couple of years. I think before I've even walked in that it is "something."

As I enter the front door I find myself in the Urban Room, shuffling around with some of the 16,000 other people who visited the library on opening day. The Urban Room spans the length of the building with walls of glass pouring in natural light at both ends as well as from the glass ceiling five stories above me. I've come to see the library but my attention is diverted for the time being to a flower shop to my left. Several retailers are set up in shops along one side of the Urban Room, including a newsstand, the Library Friends' store, and Night Flight Comics.

Eventually I make it to the book side of the building. There are five floors and a rooftop terrace ,and so I decide to start in the basement and work my way up. The children's library is first. I've read about new specially designed reading nooks-just the kind of secret space I would have loved to have been able to read in when I was a kid. I'm a little disappointed though. One room, called Grandma's Attic, is constructed of unfinished pine-splinters just waiting to happen-and the other is called the Ice Cave, and is constructed of cold, hard, angular plastic. I can see the goose eggs on little foreheads now. I was expecting pillows, I guess.

But there are lots of other architectural details throughout the building that work. The east side of the library is constructed largely of glass, allowing for breathtaking views of the Wasatch Front from every floor. It's also very, very warm. With wind chills outside dropping the temperature to around 12 degrees, I decide to hang out by the windows for a while to thaw out, and so I grab a copy of Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner off a nearby shelf and have a seat.

If I were more cosmopolitan, I could have opted to read on the west side of the building on a comfy couch by the fire with city views. Library designers took a bit of a cue from Barnes & Noble, putting fireside reading lounges on every floor. And, even though this is Utah, a coffee kiosk near the circulation desk will soon be jerking java (it wasn't open yet when I was there). Many residents are already taking advantage of the more than 80,000 new additions to the library's collection; it looks like lines at the circulation desk are at least an hour long.

One thing I notice while basking in the Salt Lake sunshine is that this library is loud. It was designed with the northern Utah landscape in mind (think rocks and sagebrush), as well as durability. Everything is steel, slate, glass. Voices and footsteps echo everywhere, but I imagine that after a week or so, things will calm down and there won't be thousands of people milling around all the time. Besides, the library is meant to be a place where people can make some noise.

The Salt Lake Public Library takes their mission statement seriously to be "a dynamic civic resource that provides free access to information, materials, and services to all members of the community to stimulate ideas, advance knowledge, and enhance the quality of life." A librarian has given me a button to wear: it's fluorescent green with "SHH!" in black letters with a slash through them. "It means no shh," she explains. The library is meant to be a place where conversations start, where they develop, not a place where tight-lipped women with glasses and gray hair (wrapped in a bun of course) "shh" people.

Looking for some peace and quiet, I take to the roof. Right now, in the middle of winter, there are only a few bare trees up here, but I can image what it will look like in the spring. Below me are a fountain, a courtyard, and an amphitheater. This will be a lovely place for a concert next summer. I walk along the outside crescent wall that winds down to that courtyard. If I lived here, I'd consider my property tax increase well spent.

For pictures of the new Salt Lake City Library and other information about it, visit


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