She is being praised as a visionary for raising the profile of libraries and redefining their role in communities.
Tessman cares passionately about the responsibility of libraries in a democracy and has delighted in seeing equality take root in the Main Library, where she can find a homeless man reading a New York Times next to a businesswoman browsing Fortune.
"The library has helped create or amplify the idea [that] with everything that can define us, there are certain places . . . that create common ground," the 53-year-old said Wednesday. "I look back on [my tenure] and it feels like it has been a pretty powerful time for me. I feel extremely fortunate I've had this career."
Tessman recently informed the library board and Mayor Rocky Anderson of her decision. The mayor wishes he could talk her out of it.
"She is the very best of what anyone could ever hope for in a library director," Anderson said. She is "extremely committed to community building in every way possible through our library system. . . . I told her if I had any way of refusing to accept her resignation, I would do it."
But Tessman already has penciled in plans. She recently married Charlie Forshew, and the couple want to travel Europe for six months. "Right now, I plan to take a little hiatus, do some traveling and regroup."
Tessman grew up in Salt Lake City. The Sprague branch in Sugar House was her library and, while the Main Library towers as the showcase, she carries a strong affinity for the city's five branches.
She planned to be a journalist but ended up in public relations when she took a job, at age 23, as the library's community-relations director.
She never left.
While Tessman doesn't have a degree in library science - she graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor's in mass communication - she worked up the ranks and rose to director in 1996.
Her nontraditional background makes her achievements, and the respect she has earned from other librarians, all the more impressive, said Martin Gomez, president of the Illinois-based Urban Libraries Council, of which Salt Lake City is a member.
Tessman has proved that "running a library these days is not as much about having the degree as it is having a real good sense of community," Gomez said. "It's going to be hard to replace somebody like Nancy. It takes awhile for an individual to really gain that kind of integrity and credibility in a community."
She was at the helm when 68 percent of city voters in 1998 agreed to an $84 million bond to build the new Main Library and launch other improvements.
Tessman and the library board didn't want just a signature building, but one that reflected the community. So in choosing a designer - eventually Massachusetts-based Moshe Safdie was picked - officials sent architecture teams a box full of symbols of the city: a vial of water, sage seeds, Utah literature, historical photographs.
"The Main Library building and all that it stands for, I think, will always be a monument to Nancy's incredible leadership," Anderson said. "I don't think that ever would have happened without Nancy Tessman."
Tessman is proud of the structure. She likes how it stands as a metaphor for what residents said they wanted. People desired a place to exchange ideas, shed light, explore. The building is one for the books - full of light, open spaces, whimsical places.
The awards have followed. The Main Library has been honored for its engineering, concrete and architecture, and its role as a gathering place. This year, it was named Library of the Year by Library Journal and is a model for other urban libraries.
More important than the building, Tessman points to its services. The Dewey Lecture Series - with its national speakers - was her brainchild and tickets often are snatched up within hours. The Internet is heavily used. Audio/visual materials are checked out in truckloads. Circulation at the city's libraries is three times the national per-capita average for similar-sized systems.
The library has hosted events ranging from the Gay Pride Parade to the Chinese New Year festival; from Utah AIDS Foundation fundraisers to the Utah Arts Festival.
"I can look at the meeting-room schedule . . . and smile at the fact that there are kids in their jammies at a story time," Tessman said. "There's a business group in one room talking about investments. There's a grass-roots political group in another room. It can't help but make you feel very, very hopeful at a time you could feel very cynical."
Library board member Roz McGee said the board has a plan to replace Tessman, difficult as it will be. "We're going to hate to see her go, but she has paved the way very constructively for a strong successor. There are people all over the country that are going to be very interested in this position."
Tessman's assistant director, Chip Ward, also is retiring next year. He will leave at the end of January. The leadership vacuum could be troublesome, but Ward said the library staff is prepared to carry on Tessman's style. After all, most employees are on committees that vet many of the library's decisions. And employees are cross-trained because they are allowed to change jobs every year.
"That's really [Tessman's] legacy: the organizational culture, which is so strong on the values, understands the mission and is committed to the principles she believes in. Her legacy will go on for quite a while," Ward said.
For her part, Tessman hopes her legacy lives in what goes on inside city libraries.
"I hope it's an appreciation, a respect for the fact that diversity in ideas and people has been respected here, that we really have created an environment [where] people feel safe intellectually. They can explore. They feel very welcome. We've created places of common ground."
Notable moments for Nancy Tessman and the Salt Lake City library system during her tenure as director:
* The Main Library was named Library of the Year in 2006 by Library Journal.
* She created the Dewey Lecture Series, bringing notable authors such as Calvin Trillin, Frank Deford and Seymour Hersh.
* The Main Library was featured in an Archie comic book in 2006.
* The Main Library marks Chinese New Year, Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights) and Eid el-Fitr (to mark the end of Ramadan).
* She co-created the Snowbird Leadership Institute to train new librarians.
* The Sugar House Sprague Library and Anderson-Foothill branches were expanded as part of the $84 million bond that paid for the Main Library.
* Day-Riverside branch gained a 6-acre nature study area designed with low-water natural landscape on the banks of the Jordan River.
* She was awarded Librarian of the Year in 2003 by the Utah Library Association and given the Salt Lake City Mayor's Award in the Humanities in 2005.