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Seattle’s new library may be good, but ours is better

July 5, 2004

Not to brag, but our new library is much cooler than Seattle’s new library.

Maybe you’ve noticed the recent hoopla about Seattle’s new downtown library -- The New York Times, Newsweek, and NPR are among those who have done stories.  Sometimes living in Salt Lake City means being jealous of what the bigger and/or more progressive cities have.  I love our new library, but I began to worry I might love Seattle’s even more. While visiting Seattle a couple of weeks ago, I decided to see for myself how ours compares.

Both buildings can boast world-class architects:  Moshe Safdie for Salt Lake’s City Library and Rem Koolhaas for the Seattle Central Library, and both buildings are eye-catching.  Seattle’s huge glass structure consists of many massive planes jutting out at odd angles.  It looks like a gargantuan ventilation duct plunked into downtown.

The footprint of the building extends clear to the sidewalk (or nearly so) on each side of the city block it occupies, giving the sense of an imposing presence that’s too big to see when you’re standing right outside; you can only get glimpses on approach.

Our library’s happy dwindling crescent shape and expansive outdoor grounds with fountains, pools, main plaza, amphitheater and gardens compare quite favorably.  It’s a much smaller library, only five stories and 240,000 square feet where Seattle has 11 stories and 412,000 square feet, but Seattle is a much bigger city, nearly three times our size, so that’s OK.

Seattle’s library, which opened May 24, has more than 900,000 books and other materials, 400 public computers, and 328 employees, while Salt Lake City’s, which opened Feb. 8, 2003, has more than 500,000 books and materials, 163 public computers, and a staff of 278.  The two libraries have auditoriums of about the same size.

Seattle’s new library cost $165 million; ours cost about $80 million.  Both libraries were forced to herald their grand openings while simultaneously announcing budget cuts.

The kids’ section in our City Library is much nicer than Seattle Central Library’s.  Theirs is primarily one big room while we have really great spaces for a kid to go off and read -- The Attic, The Crystal Cave, and other tiny nooks too small to even have names, just big enough for one or two kids.

Both libraries have a story room for special children’s readings, but we also have a craft room and outdoor space with a water feature.  In addition, we have a baby-changing area that parents of either sex can use and restrooms with child-sized toilets; Seattle doesn’t.

Seattle has a small gift shop in their library, which I didn’t see, but it can’t be as nice as our delightful four-story retail atrium with its 20,000-square-foot skylight and clever, attractive hanging sculpture of a human head (it’s made of about 1,500 little sculptures of books and butterflies).  There’s just the right amount of activity in our atrium; you’ll find shops selling things like fresh flowers, newspapers in many languages, gifts, and refreshments.  For adults, Seattle has one reading room that seats 400 people.  They have some smaller reading areas, too, but I didn’t see any that beckoned.

Salt Lake’s City Library has many cozy spots for reading.  Three floors have reading galleries with nice things to see in both directions.  On one side, you look down into the wide-open atrium and on the other you get a great view of downtown.  In fact, along all the outer walls of our library there are nice little reading areas and the vistas in every direction are magnificent.

If you’re on the west end you can admire the wonderful City and County Building or you can huddle up next to one of several fireplaces.  On the southeast side, there are comfy chairs with spectacular panoramas of Mount Olympus and her neighboring peaks.  She’s no Mount Rainier, but it’s a beautiful sight.

Seattle’s library looks toward Elliott Bay on one side and Mount Rainier on another, weather permitting (which is a huge caveat in Seattle), but I found the view so broken up by the strange angles and the heavy steel frames around each small window that it was hard to enjoy.

Seattle’s library has a fun hardwood floor with raised typeset lettering in 11 different languages.  You can try to read the messages as you walk along.  I also liked the luminous colored escalators and stairways (blazing red, shocking yellow); perfect for dark days in Seattle.  The architecture is super-space-age modern -- lots of gray steel, glass, concrete, exposed light bulbs.  I wouldn’t have been surprised to see people wearing jet-packs fly up to the 10th floor.  I normally kind of like modern design, but there was too little warmth and no personality to set off the stark modernity.

My main complaint about our library -- and it’s a minor complaint – is that the elevator and stairway from the underground parking garage bring you up to the main plaza but you’re still outdoors, outside the library.  I’m sure there’s a reason for it, probably something about security, but it’s not convenient.  I’m also concerned about the limestone pavers on the plaza.  Many of them are disintegrating already.

I love our gorgeous, friendly library.  Seattle’s is good, but ours is even better.  As libraries go, I’m so proud of what our city has to offer.

Not to brag.

---
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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