Joanna Sprague: Stories of Utah Women

Maren Peterson

You may have heard of the Sprague branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, but do you know the woman behind the name?

Within a year of becoming a state, Utah voted to provide funds for free public libraries. The first library opened on Valentine’s Day 1898 on the top floor of the city-county building in Salt Lake City. Joanna Sprague became the first assistant librarian. Previously she had worked as a deputy clerk of the court and had run for office as City Auditor, though she didn’t win. By 1900, the volume of books was too large for that space and the library relocated to a building on State Street. Joanna Sprague was elected the head librarian in the new location. 

Joanna Sprauge at her 95th birthday. Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.

In 1912, Sprague, Salt Lake Public librarian Julie T. Lynch, University of Utah librarian Esther Nelson, and library secretary of the State Board of Public Institution Howard Driggs formed the Utah Library Association. Sprague served as its president from 1918-1919. The purpose of the Utah Library Association was to promote the library interests, which included improving librarians’ education and making librarian a professional career, and to fight for more funding. The organization is still in existence today and most recently hosted Library Day on the Hill. Sprague was also President and Vice President of the Pacific Northwest Library Association.

Letter from Joanna Sprague to Governor Dern. Series 204.

Slowly the library system expanded, and in 1914 it was decided to open a branch of the library in Sugar House. It was named the Sprague branch in honor of Joanna Sprague. The Sprague branch moved to its current location in 1928 and in 1935 was awarded ‘Most Beautiful Branch Library in America’ by the American Library Association

The Sprague Branch Library. It is currently closed for repairs and the library has been moved to the Sprague Firehouse Express. Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.

Joanna Sprague retired in 1940, though she still lived next to the library for several years. When she began as the director of the library program it had an inventory of 99,428 books on hand. By the time she retired it had 807,693. It also grew to include eight branches. 

She passed away in 1961 and had a private burial.

Joanna Sprague death record. Series 81448.

Sources

“History of the City Library.”  The City Library. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://about.slcpl.org/mission

“Joanna Sprague, S.L. Librarian, Dies at Age 98.” Deseret News, January 9 1961.

“Librarian Resigns Position after 37 Years of Service.” Salt Lake Telegram, May 3, 1940. Utah Digital Newspapers. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=19503893&q=%28Joanna+AND+Sprague%29&sort=rel&year_start=1940&year_end=1959

“Utah Library Association records, 1912-2012.” Historical Note. Archives West. Accessed May 1, 2020. http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv48999