Salt Lake City’s Main Library: 125 years of history

Sep 22, 2023, 9:55 AM

SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone passing through downtown Salt Lake has probably seen the Main Library. It’s kind of hard to miss, considering that it takes up an entire city block.

The building is unlike anything else downtown.

Made up of massive windows and a giant external staircase, the library does exactly what the architects of the building intended – in their words, “The library is an extroverted building, reaching across the site to pull in and engage the public and downtown.”

But how did Salt Lake end up with an entire block dedicated to a public library?

Rewind to 125 years ago

To answer that, we’ll have to go back to 1898 – when the first free and public library opened in the city.

According to the Salt Lake City Public Library System, this was when an effort to get the library to be publicly funded proved successful and Salt Lake got its first free public library

Across the street from today’s Main Library is the Salt Lake City and County building. That was home to the city’s first free, public library.

At the time of its establishment, the library had a core collection of almost 12,000 books.

The city library’s first director was Annie E. Chapman, who had served as a librarian for the Pioneer Library Association. Years later, a namesake library that still stands today honored Chapman’s legacy.

As Salt Lake City fully embraced the public library system, the SLCPL said the City and County building quickly overflowed. At this point, leadership decided that the library needed its own building.

The new building opened in 1905 on State Street. But don’t go looking there hoping to check out a book. These days, it houses a jewelry store.

The system expands

The city library system continued growing between 1906 through the 1960s, and throughout this time period, the building on State Street operated as the Main Library.

Branch after branch of the city library were built over the decades.

Most of these branches have long since closed. Many underwent name changes, relocations and expansions as Salt Lake City grew.

The only branches from this period that are still open are the Chapman and Sprague branches, both named in honor of past library directors.

The rest of today’s seven branches were built within the last 40 years. The branches are spread throughout the city, serving communities from Rose Park to Sugar House to Bonneville Hills.


Growing pains

By the 1960s, the SLCPL said the library system had outgrown its home. At this point, the Main Library was located on State Street in what would eventually become the Hansen Planetarium — and subsequently the O.C. Tanner building. 

As the Free Public Library outgrew its space, the SLCPL said two library board members, Jacob Kahn and Gail Plummer, spearheaded an effort to buy a site to build a new Main Library at 209 East and 500 South.

This large building opened in 1964 and now houses the Leonardo Museum.

After the 1960s, history repeated itself. Branches of the public library continued to be built and expanded in order to keep up with the system’s rapid growth.

And once again, the Main Library outgrew its building.

Salt Lake City’s Main Library as we know it today

That brings us to 1998 when voters approved an $84 million bond to build a new Main Library, at a site just a stone’s throw away from two of the old Main Libraries. 

Everything on that city block, except for the now-Leonardo, was demolished and in 2003 the current Main Library opened to the public.

This version of the Main Library is five stories tall and spans over 200,000 square feet.

Its most notable feature is the giant staircase built onto the outside of the library. Though the rooftop that the staircase leads to is currently closed for renovations, the staircase itself is still a sight to behold.

It’s a far cry from the first free public library in Salt Lake. The newest Main Library has a computer lab, a dedicated children’s library, and stores that are locally owned and operated.

The city library system has almost 4 million items in circulation each year – which is over 300 times more than the main collection of the first free public library.

The library reports that 3.7 million people visit City Library branches each year.

With 125 years worth of history and hundreds of thousands of square feet to consider, there’s a lot left of the Main Library to explore.

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Salt Lake City’s Main Library: 125 years of history