A Brief History of the Utah State Library

by Faye D. Fischer

“One who believes that he has mastered the art of horsemanship has not yet begun to understand the horse.”

Author Unknown

Horses. A strange but accurate place to start a history of the Utah State Library. The library’s beginnings can be traced back to a renovated livery/coach house behind the Kearns Mansion. Early histories of the USL are packed with horse art, references, and idioms. But the metaphors turned out to be quite suitable for the library’s steady and diligent rise over the course of it existence.

The First 25 Years

In 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Library Services Act that provided matching funds to states to provide library services to rural communities. There was one small problem barring Utah from accessing those funds; we were the only state that didn’t have a state library commission. This was soon remedied and in July of 1957 Utah was the last state to form a state library. The first library director, Russell Davis wasted no time in getting the state library on its feet, working the first week from the back seat of his car. After a few months in a temporary location on the fairgrounds, the library moved into the remodeled coach house. It didn’t take long for the library to outgrow the space and it soon moved to a warehouse near 300 W and 2100 S.

In the early years Davis and his team focused on bringing library services to rural communities. He found that community leaders were either apathetic or wanted the service immediately. He also ran into difficulties using the common system of regional libraries. Fiercely independent counties in Utah just didn’t want to work together! The solution was Bookmobiles. The library created one, state of the art unit and took it on a tour of rural Utah. It was a hit! A contract was signed for Kane, Garfield, Piute, Wayne, and Iron County. Through the 1960s the fleet grew and services included Duchesne, Rich, Tooele, and Davis counties. By 1981, when funding was cut for the program and several bookmobiles were decommissioned, there was service in almost every county in the state. The early bookmobile drivers had many notable adventures—one account details a dirt bank that gave way in Ogden causing the bookmobile to tumble into a swampy bog, trapping the driver for several hours. The service was beloved by Utahns of all ages.

The state library was also asked to support library services for the blind. This service grew significantly and became well known in the West and at the Library of Congress. The Utah State Library became a hub serving fifteen states. The library also developed a technical and reference team. At the end of an era upon Russel Davis’ retirement in 1987 one of the greatest concerns of the expert team of librarians and professionals was how to keep up with the rapid growth of technology.

Progress and Change

Amy Owen became the second director of the Utah State Library and was selected by the Library Journal magazine as the Librarian of the Year in 1990. An article in the magazine celebrated her advocacy to the legislature and the founding of the UPGRADE and UPLIFT programs to professionalize and empower Utah library staff. One program participant stated, “I believe the quality of service and professionalism in small and fairly remote libraries has improved…Because we know more, we have a professional attitude and are taken seriously.”

During this era more emphasis was put on library consultants who worked closely with local libraries to make sure that all had access to as many services as possible and could become certified. Partnerships between public education, higher education, and education networks across the state flourished. The idea that all Utah libraries should work together led to a key technological development; the creation of PIONEER: Utah’s First Online Library. The online library greatly increased digital access to countless resources that were otherwise unreachable. The online library greatly increased the service potential of the smallest and most remote of Utah libraries.

By the mid-1990s the Utah State Library had finally outgrown the warehouses it had used for decades. In 1997 ground was broken for the library’s current location. At the groundbreaking former senator, Scott Howell said, “This new building symbolizes a great step forward in our effort to bring more of the world within reach of people.” In 1998 the building was completed and the library moved in. Over the ensuing decades the Utah State Library continued to build programs and support libraries and librarians across the state, and in 2007 celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Going Forward

In 2021 the library appointed its fifth and current director, Chaundra Johnson. Chaundra’s vision for the library is one of supporting growth and fostering positive change.

Many of the ideas and programs initiated in the early years continue today. The Library Services Act (now known as the Library Services and Technology Act) is still providing federal funding for libraries today. The Utah State Library offers multiple grants to help local libraries to complete specialized projects, purchase basic and advanced technology, and enhance their collections and programming. The library still offers the UPLIFT program by providing professional training programs including local in-house training and access to national training and webinars from industry experts. There are currently five bookmobiles operating in eight counties.  The Utah State Library for the Blind serves patrons in 24 states and houses the largest collection of braille print materials in the world. We are also doing wonderful new things like the Book Buzz program and working on the frontlines of creating an internet connectivity and digital access plan that will reach everyone in the state. The library team is highly trained and focused on the motto to “develop, advance, and promote library services and equal access to information and library resources to all Utah residents.” You can explore all the services offered by the Utah State Library on our website.

Returning to the quote at the beginning of the article, we don’t assume that we have mastered the art of librarianship. There is so much more to learn from this horse and further change to embrace as technology moves forward and the needs of Utah library patrons change seemingly every day. This October the Utah State Library will celebrate 66 years of service. Thank you for the part you have played in the journey so far. Here’s to an amazing future!

Directors past and present:

Russell Davis 1957 – 1987

Amy Owen 1987 – 2004

Donna Jones 2004 – 2017

Colleen Eggett 2018 – 2021

Chaundra Johnson 2021 – Present