The Beginning of Public Support for Libraries

Max J. Evans and Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, July 1996

During 1900–30 private groups and individuals in Utah still attempted to establish and operate public libraries as they had in the 19th century. Gradually they realized that enthusiasm and idealism were not enough. A steady and substantial source of funds was necessary for success. Most private groups could not provide this. As a result, library funding became accepted as a legitimate function of local government. Many of Utah’s present public libraries were established during the period when government support first became important.

The library act of 1896 provided the legal basis for tax-supported libraries in first- and second-class cities. Later, third-class cities received the machinery to establish libraries. Private support did not abruptly cease, however. Clubs, church groups, and library associations continued to establish and maintain public libraries, and many of these groups began to work with public agencies. During 1900–30 many new public libraries were permanently established. For example, in 1903 a book club in Provo started a library. By 1906 the city had appointed a board of trustees and provided the group with space in the courthouse, but the books were furnished by donation and not from tax funds. A group in Tooele also established a public library; the Tooele Lyceum Company purchased the Old Opera House in 1904, in part to house the company’s public library.

By 1915 libraries without tax support operated in at least seven Utah towns, including Moroni, Mount Pleasant, Orangeville, Panguitch, Huntington, Grantsville, and Vernal. By 1918, 16 towns had such libraries. Most would become tax-funded institutions. In Lehi, for example, the Mutual Improvement Association of the LDS church operated the public library until 1910 when the city began to levy a tax for its support. The Brigham City library began in the same way; in 1913 the local “MIA Library and Reading Room” was given to the city. Kanab provides perhaps the best example of a total community effort. Although the Ladies Literary League took the lead, the whole town supported their effort. The Kanab library received money and books from dances, book showers, operettas, and plays. A local bank loaned money to the library, and in 1918 Kanab City assumed total responsibility for the library.

Private groups in Tremonton and American Fork also turned their libraries over to city government in the 1910s, and a women’s group in Spanish Fork operated a public library for four years until the city voted a tax for it in 1925. The local American Legion post in Fillmore sponsored the first library in that city. People in Monroe, Delta, and Park City established libraries without tax support in the 1920s and 1930s. Libraries operated in Sandy, Magna, and Bingham Canyon without tax support until 1939 when the new Salt Lake County Library absorbed them. Even after legal provisions for library support had been made, groups continued to organize public libraries. In the little town of Alton, 40 miles east of Cedar City, a library was established in 1950 as a 4-H project.

One of the most important things done to encourage the library movement was a 1907 act of the legislature establishing a Library-Gymnasium Commission and giving cities the authority to raise taxes for the construction of a library or a library-gymnasium combination. The act also created the post of secretary, whose job it was to travel the state and encourage cities to develop libraries. The first secretary, Howard R. Driggs, was an energetic propagandist for the movement. He envisioned the library-gymnasium as the center of community culture, recreation, and education. He thought it would complement the temperance movement, serve as an alternative for saloons, and create “a home for street boys.” As a result of this legislation, professional help at the state level, and the work of local groups, many towns, including Eureka, Garland, St. George, Cedar City, Tooele, and Vernal, “voted to tax themselves for library purposes.”

In 1911, however, Governor William Spry recommended that the commission’s work be absorbed by the state school board. The legislature agreed. The school board retained Driggs to direct the program and hired Mrs. K. M. Jacobsen as a library organizer; she was succeeded in 1914 by Mary E. Downey. Their job was to encourage and help community libraries. In 1912, for example, the people of Richmond asked Driggs to come and explain the library legislation. An election was then held and a public library approved. A building was constructed and the library opened in the fall of 1914. Mary Downey spent two days in Richmond that spring to help prepare for the opening. By 1920 there were 43 tax-supported libraries in Utah. Still, private efforts remained significant. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie gave Utah communities from Richmond to St. George $255,470 to build 23 libraries during a 17-year period. Unfortunately, some towns had too small a tax base to support a library. Building maintenance often used up most of the annual $1,000 that Carnegie required cities to allocate to their libraries, leaving little or nothing to buy new books. On the whole, however, a Carnegie library benefited most towns that had one. Salt Lake City had its own philanthropist, John Q. Packard, who in 1900 deeded a lot south of the Alta Club to the city and gave some $75,000 to construct a library there. It opened five years later.

The Utah Library Association (ULA) was also founded during these formative years. In 1912 Esther Nelson of the University of Utah Library, Joanna Sprague and Julia T. Lynch of the Salt Lake City Public Library, and Howard Driggs invited librarians from around the state to a meeting. Forty-six responded and formed the ULA “to promote the library interest of the State of Utah” and, more specifically, to establish American Library Association standards.

The period from 1900 to 1930 was an era of expansion in the number of public libraries in Utah. Legislation, which provided legal authority and taxation for libraries, and philanthropy, which provided physical quarters, were responsible for this proliferation. The number of libraries has never since grown so rapidly. Although the ULA was organized during this period, concerted efforts to improve library quality would not occur until the depression and war years, 1930–45.

Source: Max J. Evans, “A History of the Public Library Movement in Utah” (M.S. thesis, Utah State University, 1971), 1980.