By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 06/15/2006
The building was the catalyst. “The affirmation of the bond issue vote was huge, with its 68 percent approval margin,” says Nancy Tessman, director of the Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL). The vote was in November 1998, and the new building opened in February 2003, a magnificent creation of the team led by internationally celebrated architect Moshe Safdie. Now, nearly four years later and thanks to zealous comment and active participation by citizens, the spirit and attitudes engendered by the new library grow stronger and deeper with every new service, event, or partner the library adds.
SLCPL has established itself as the center of town, the community gathering place. The city block it occupies, now called Library Square, is where “citizens practice democracy,” say library staffers. Of course, it serves as the “cultural warehouse” for Salt Lake City and Utah, as Safdie said, though he quickly added that it was also “a community of readers, a place where people interact with the material and each other.”
The library has even transcended those ambitious expectations and gone beyond being the “placemaker” Safdie intended. It has become a crucial center for the city, the agency to start and sustain the celebration of diversity and the deep and difficult effort to understand, enjoy, and learn from all that has changed Salt Lake City.
The library mission came from the people of Salt Lake City. Through focus groups and meetings, they told library planners that they wanted more than a new building. It was time for the city and its library to be redefined. People wanted their fellow citizens and the world to recognize that the community had changed greatly over the years, that it is now culturally and ethnically more diverse—a self-examination spurred by the Olympics.
“Moshe Safdie was really sensitive, as were local architects Valentiner Crane Brunjes Onyon, to the idea that the library intended to create common ground and that the building should display that,” says Tessman. “The building reflects the idea of an open mind. There are 360° views of the city from it. You can look outward in every direction.” The building is circular and suggests climbing. It is like a “walkable wall.” To experience it is uplifting and one gains perspective. A visitor can walk a circle from the heavily used outside public plaza all the way up into the main library building. “Safdie really understood that the community had told us they wanted greater perspective for all citizens, a more open-minded, generous appreciation of the diversity here,” says Tessman.
“It helps to have a mayor who has the right idea of what a library should be,” adds Tessman, talking about Salt Lake City’s popular mayor, Rocky Anderson, now in his second term. From the beginning, as the library was being built, he believed in bringing in new voices, different voices.
Anderson was working on a program called “Bridging the Religious Divide,” and it was among the first in the new SLCPL. The program was also the first in the Freedom Forum series initiated by the mayor’s office and cosponsored by SLCPL, which featured discussions on such hot-button issues on the public agenda as gun control, immigration reform, sex education, underage drinking, free speech, and more. The program evolved into an enlightened community conversation that was deeply appreciated by citizens.
“The mayor really likes debate and discussion,” says Tessman. “He embraced the idea that the library’s mission included attending to all points of view, and so he began the series. The result is a model that does more than we ever dreamed it could in involving people and getting them to participate.”
The Freedom Forum was the model for the library’s truly courageous public programming of distinguished but often controversial intellectual celebrities. “It is amazing to see the hunger in the community for this kind of place and this kind of event,” says Tessman. At that first event, hundreds of people gathered to discuss similarities and differences among the many religious communities in Salt Lake City, a place once considered to be inhabited by only Mormon and non-Mormon.
“The idea isn’t that libraries don’t like religious ideas; it is that we want to be sure we welcome them all,” says Tessman, when asked if the use of the library for religious gatherings was controversial. “The city library represents neutral common ground in our diverse community,” says Mayor Anderson. “It is seen as the place where citizens can sit across the table from one another and respectfully discuss our differences and similarities. The library brings people together to shine a light on the important and often divisive issues that confront our community. It is a sterling example of the community-building that can occur when open and honest discussion takes place.”
Ultimately, many ethnic groups and religions have come to know and use the new library. At the end of the fasting of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Salt Lake City’s Muslims held the feast to break the month-long fast at the library. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, was also held at the library, and Tessman was given the honor of lighting the lamp on the third day. The library hosted Chinese New Year, Juneteenth, and the Hispanic Festival as well.
Where democracy happens
The Dewey Lecture series, named for librarianship’s own Melvil (LJ’s first editor), featured a stellar array of speakers, each representing a subject class in the Dewey Decimal System. Notables such as Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, mental illness and suicide expert Kay Redfield Jamison, astronomer David Levy, columnist Calvin Trillin, and many more were on hand. The series packs ’em in at the new library. It has clearly established SLCPL as the community center “where democracy happens,” as Tessman says. A partner of the library, KCPW public radio broadcasts many library programs to a larger audience.
To round out SLCPL programs, the library also sponsors both a Community Exploration Card and a Community Cultural and Arts Performance Program. These cardholders get free admission to museums and other institutions in the city and to performances of the ballet, symphony, and other events. Also, as Tessman puts it, it helps the library “look out instead of looking in all the time.”
More than 1000 other groups and organizations meet at SLCPL, including the League of Women Voters, Wasatch Coalition for Peace and Justice, Utah Quilters, and Utah Storytelling Guild. You will find the Authors Club, Women in Recovery, and Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in session at SLCPL as well. Most of these groups partner in programming with SLCPL, making the library not only the place to meet in Salt Lake City but the place to develop events as well.
A total library
SLCPL provides the full array of traditional and modern library services. The new library features creative displays of materials, wonderful physical spaces, and a glorious collection of settings for library use by adults and children. “One thing we’re proud of is that this library is built for people of all ages,” says Tessman.
More than 20 percent of the 175 full-time people on the library staff are “professionals.” Some 80 percent are white, one percent are black, nine percent are Hispanic, and 8.5 percent are Asian/Pacific islanders. Native Americans are just under one percent of the employees. This is almost an exact reflection of the total population of Salt Lake City. It is no coincidence, since SLCPL recruits aggressively from every community in its population.
Each of the five branches of SLCPL operates in the same style but as a smaller model of the main library. Each has its own manager and carries on a series of programs and meetings to encourage community and cultural understanding. Branch managers are part of the SLCPL management team, which meets twice a month. Most of the 20 or more community councils in Salt Lake City meet in one of the branches. The councils deal with neighborhood issues from public events to housing and sidewalks. All branches have rooms for these and other forums.
Nineteen books or more are borrowed annually by each of the 179,894 residents in Salt Lake City. Nearly 15 percent of the budget of $13,190,367 goes to materials. SLCPL hosts some 550,000 Internet sessions and gets some 3,676,000 catalog hits annually. The per capita library budget is a very healthy $63.77. Coupled with SLCPL’s incredible schedule of programs to push for community understanding and its fine new building, the library could have called these results “mission accomplished.” But there is more.
Partners on Library Square
“A library isn’t just programs and services. All good libraries offer them,” says Tessman. SLCPL goes further. Library Square, the ten-acre city block on which the library was built, is also the site of the old library building about to be converted into the Leonardo, a consortium of centers focusing on science, art, and culture. The Utah Arts Festival, the largest event in the state each year, is now held in Library Square, with attendance of 70,000 to 80,000.
Library Square is also the site of the many library partners and tenants. The Downtown Place, Salt Lake City’s information center for economic development and tourism, is there, cosponsored with the Downtown Alliance and the Convention and Visitors Bureau by SLCPL. The Friends of the Library operate the Library Store there. A flower shop, a nonprofit artist’s cooperative, a delicatessen, and a coffee shop are onsite as well. Night Flight Comics, a graphic novel and comics shop, is there, too.
The SLCPL partnership with Library Square neighbor KCPW has been productive for both. The station broadcasts many library programs and now new ones are being developed that are designed to cater more effectively to both onsite visitors and the listening audience outside the library.
“It is a one-of-a-kind, dynamic partnership,” says KCPW manager Chris Eisenberg, “with the potential to expand the reach of library programming beyond the library’s walls.” The Community Writing Center of Salt Lake Community College is on Library Square, too, and partners with SLCPL on a variety of education initiatives. The library provides not only space but computers and referrals.
For the profession
As the library is in the state capital, SLCPL administration felt an obligation to build leadership and understanding of and for librarians. The idea was established by SLCPL director Dennis Day, now deceased, as the Snowbird Leadership Institute, which ran for several years. Tessman felt a leadership and library institute was needed for more than library professionals. “We need to be multidisciplinary,” she says, “in an environment to which we can invite board members and city government officials and where we can hear multidisciplinary speakers.”
The first two-day Thinking Ahead Symposium was held at Salt Lake City PL in 2005; the next one is scheduled for September 2006. Management guru Wheatley keynoted the first one, and this year Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute in Colorado will keynote. UCLA librarian Gary Strong, incoming American Library Association president Leslie Burger, and Bridget Lamont, former Illinois State Librarian, will also be there. “We have an obligation to put the same kind of model we have for our community in place for the library profession,” says Tessman.
Tessman doesn’t follow a single management style. She says the goal of SLCPL is to be more conscious of the multidimensional aspects of the library. “People want many things and often very different things from their library, which means I have to employ many different management styles to pull it off. The more you go one note, the more you’re going to lose lots of people.”
That multidimensional, varied, and high-risk style is the key to SLCPL’s success. It has made the library a new model that harks back to the tradition established in Boston in 1852, when the trustees told the city fathers the mission of the public library would be to inform democracy, to help citizens answer questions on the public agenda that go down to “the very foundations of public order.”
SLCPL truly deserves to be Library of the Year in 2006. Its model for the library of the future includes a magnificent setting in which to hold the community forum and brings the riches of a full array of library materials and services to a public that is clearly hungry for them.
|John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ|