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What started as a nonprofit's effort to find a safe spot for homeless youth has evolved into an experiment in making a public library more relevant to its community.
The Salt Lake City Public Library recently launched an online survey to gather input on what residents would like to see if it opened around the clock, an idea that started when the Downtown Alliance asked if the library could serve as a destination for homeless teenagers after hours.
That proposal violated the library's mission of serving all constituencies, SLCPL executive director John Spears said. Instead, he suggested opening the building continuously, but to everyone.
With the promise of fundraising from Downtown Alliance, the library began planning a pilot program that Spears believes will be the first of its kind in the nation: For two years, the main branch would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"This isn't just going to be books on a shelf and people who come in to check them out," Spears said. Overnight services could include workshops and midnight movie showings.
State laws prevent the city from opening a youth shelter, Alliance director Jason Mathis said. A library-turned-community center would help teens because currently "there are not a lot of safe, warm places for homeless youth to go in the evening, and they're a very vulnerable population."
Under Utah law, a person under 18 can't be away from family members for more than 48 hours, Mathis said.
Before the library could move forward with the plan, it would need authorization from the City Council. However, in December, Spears asked the council to postpone action on the plan to give the library more time to explore factors like cost, safety and feasibility. Data from the online survey will be compiled at the end of April.
The idea is generating a lot of interest, Spears said.
"My brain is definitely most active and sometimes most productive at the later hours," said Jamee Dyches, 23, who works remotely. She often takes advantage of the library's free Internet and the opportunity to leave her living room.
She said the library would be one of the few cultural activities available at night and could become a destination for creative dates.
The proposal ventures into unknown territory. Spears said the only public library he knows of with 24-hour service is in Turkey.
City Councilwoman Lisa Adams said she doesn't want to stifle innovation, but she sees too many open questions.
"I think it's an interesting idea to explore. I think it's a bad idea to pursue," Adams said.
She doubts the demand for around-the-clock library access and said it would make more sense to extend the hours to 11 p.m. or 12 a.m.
And she reiterated the most common argument against the library's plan: fear that the facility will be filled with homeless people. She thinks it would be more appropriate to spend the Alliance's money on building homeless shelters.
Spears said he isn't worried about the homeless population in the library, which will only open two of its six floors at night and have increased security.
At the end of the trial period, the library can analyze how the library was used and adjust hours or services to fit residents' needs.