The lucky-day book shelf stands just inside the door at the South St. Paul Library.

It's reserved for extra copies of the most popular books; if you find one you like, it's your lucky day.

The special shelf is an uncommon expression of individuality for a little library -- a mark of its independence as the only city-owned library in Dakota County.

"Large library systems are becoming more streamlined," South St. Paul Library director Kathy Halgren said. "We have a lot more independence. You can be as creative as you want."

Despite budget pressures and the ever-present option of joining the Dakota County library system, the city of South St. Paul has maintained a financial commitment to its own community library since the classic Colonial structure was built by civic leaders in 1927.

"We think it's an important meeting place, a haven for people, and it's critical that it stay open,'' Mayor Beth Baumann said.

When Pat Anderson was state auditor, she pushed the city to close the library to save money, Baumann said. But the community sees the library as a necessity.

"We know that if we merge with Dakota County [library], they will close that library,'' Baumann said. "We think it's worth keeping open." The old library, with an addition on the original structure added in 1965, stands at 106 N. 3rd Av., opposite City Hall.

"The library is a cornerstone of the community and has been for so long," Halgren said.

Spurred by immigrant stockyard workers seeking knowledge of their new homeland, South St. Paul formed a library commission in 1916 -- the same year the Carnegie Corp. promised to donate $15,000 to build one of its Greek-style libraries for the community.

World War I changed those plans, and the Carnegie money did not come through. Ten years later, the city built the $38,500 library on large, well-sited lots donated by the St. Paul Union Stockyards Company that had put the city on the map.

Glimpses of the past

Built in the Colonial style, it has a rooftop cupola and a cornice over the front door. The inside is flooded with natural light from tall arched windows beneath towering ceilings. It has a nostalgic, homey comfort -- uncommon among the sleek and efficient glass-and-steel libraries of today. Some say it even has ghosts.

"It feels like you can close your eyes and go back 50 years," one patron said.

The children's room in particular, with its bright green walls, scarlet trim and stuffed caterpillar, rabbits and bears atop built-in wooden shelves, looks as it must have decades ago.

"There is something about an older building that gives you a feeling of the presence of past learners. There is a history and you are a part of it," Halgren said.

Hoping to tap into this experience, Lake Elmo officials recently consulted with South St. Paul staffers after withdrawing from the Washington County library system to start a Lake Elmo community library.

Library board member Mike Fisher said that what makes the South St. Paul library such an appealing place is the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff.

"Just before Christmas, the librarian, Kathy, and the children's librarian, Amy, put on a small concert," Fisher said. "Kathy plays a harp, and Amy plays the flute. People would come in and listen to them play Christmas music."

Board member Virginia Lanegran, who remembers whispering in the library as a girl in the 1940s when the librarian was a "very stern, dictatorial lady," notes that the library has not been a quiet zone for at least 10 years. Talking is allowed.

Working with the county

Although it has refused more than once to join the Dakota County Library system, South St. Paul has developed a warm affiliation with the county system over the years. South St. Paul selects all of its own materials for a collection of about 80,000 items, but its catalog is based with Dakota County's in Eagan. The two freely share materials, sending books back and forth as they are requested, giving cardholders at the city and the county libraries a greater selection.

To make the book sharing easier at Dakota County libraries, the county is paying for the insertion of radio frequency identification tags in all South St. Paul books. The county pasted the tags in all of its own books last year, making it possible for materials to be checked out in stacks and checked back in and routed for automated reshelving without the attention of a librarian.

The big news this year for the South St. Paul library is the coming installation of its first and only self-serve electronic checkout kiosk.

Up to now each book checked out of the library has passed through the hands of a librarian at the front desk. The new checkout machine will allow patrons to check out their own books and even pay library fines with a credit card.

Fisher said he will pay close attention to how the machine fits in with the personal atmosphere of the library.

"One of the challenges," Halgren said, "is to blend the old world charm of the building with 21st century technology."

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287