As visits decline, mission shifts to e-downloads and on-site activities across metro area.
Alayne Hopkins, left, with daughter Beatrice, 3 months, and husband Peter Henke attended “Loud at the Library” at the James Hill Reference Library in St. Paul. The baby, wearing ear protection, napped while her parents enjoyed the nontraditional event.
Even as Minnesota libraries spend hundreds of millions on building expansion and renovation, fewer and fewer people are visiting those buildings to check out books.
In the two most recent years for which final statewide numbers have been released, metro area libraries saw a drop in circulation of more than 2 million items, and visits fell by nearly 900,000. In St. Paul, since circulation peaked in 2009, it has fallen by 25 percent.
Yet e-book downloads from libraries are soaring, suggesting that people still want to read — they just don’t have to visit the library to do it.
In this shifting landscape, libraries are working to reinvent themselves. They are adding playlands for kids, drive-up windows and eye-catching programming such as lectures on beer with brewers from Surly — with sampling to follow at a nearby pub. They’re embarking on strategic rethinks and surveying patrons.
“We are at a crossroads, a defining moment, for libraries,” said Jake Grussing, the newly named director of the Scott County system.
The declining numbers put libraries in an awkward position when laying claim on public dollars. As his system’s former library director retired last year, Scott County Administrator Gary Shelton told her that his initial thought was that “with the Internet and a lot of other things, libraries were becoming passe, that they were a thing of the past, at least a physical library.”
Some library futurists say there is a case for fewer library buildings, and fiscal watchdogs are inclined to agree. Tom Steward, investigative director for the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota’s government transparency unit, said his group hasn’t probed libraries yet but means to.
“I would argue that libraries have an identity crisis as they try to be all things to all consumers and figure out a niche, and are spending a lot of taxpayer dollars in the process,” he said.
“We’re at a moment of, ‘Let’s try some stuff,’ ” said Hennepin County’s top librarian, Lois Langer Thompson. “Things could change a lot in even a year or two.”
The Hennepin County system is in the midst of a vigorous building program, with $103 million in work planned through 2018. St. Paul this year is embarking on its most ambitious facilities program in nearly a decade, and other counties have been building as well.
But Hennepin County, for one, is doing its briskest business on the Internet.
“If downloadables were a branch, they would be our busiest branch,” Thompson said. “We’re one of six systems in the nation to top a million downloads a year.”
Libraries say a good deal of the spending on facilities is about reshaping outdated buildings to fit a changing world, and they argue that their services still provide value. With its own visitor numbers plummeting, for instance, Washington County is touting the savings it provides for residents: “By borrowing just three or four titles from the library, homeowners save enough to pay the property tax levied to support library service,” according to a report the system put online.
Librarians know criticisms are out there.
“People are saying, ‘Why are we even funding libraries anymore?’ ” said Kirsty Smith, director of a 31-branch system based in St. Cloud. “They are saying, ‘People don’t go to libraries anymore. Heck, people don’t even read anymore.’ And that’s just my husband!”
With checkouts fading, the number of programs is exploding as libraries seek new ways to get people in the door.
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