Between 2011 and 2012, the latest year for which all libraries have released data, total circulation fell by millions of items, but the number of programs — musical performances, author talks, computer classes and the like — leapt by nearly 3,000.
Most of that increase came in St. Paul, which launched a “Mobile Workplace” program of computer access and training at off-library sites and accelerated a program aimed at adults needing computers for job hunts and other research.
St. Paul has bought sewing machines and 3-D printers for budding entrepreneurs, as part of a “maker” movement in which libraries provide a setting for launching enterprises and adding to job skills.
Libraries also stress their role as a communal gathering place. Last month, organizers of a daylong “Star Wars” event at Dakota County’s Rosemount library hoped for 200 participants, bought 500 cookies just in case — and were floored to see 1,500 people swarm through.
“Our services are more than books, computers, desks, chairs,” said Dakota director Ken Behringer. “It’s a broad range of programs, from early childhood literacy to programs for seniors. It’s a transitional time, but it’s about access, not format.”
Scott County’s Grussing visited the highly touted Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library system, with what he called its “staggering” array of national honors.
“They are planning $100 million in brand new or renovated facilities,” he said, “and I saw mock-ups from architects that, if you hadn’t told me I was looking at a new library, there was nothing to tell you they were. Books were pushed off to the side.”
Digital vs. physical
To limit losses of would-be borrowers, libraries also are making life easier for the remaining seekers of physical books and the like. Hennepin, for instance, is opening earlier in the morning and more often on Sundays and taking steps to reduce the monthslong wait times facing those seeking popular titles.
One big change: Soon Hennepin’s libraries will begin accepting donated bestsellers to help get them in people’s hands sooner.
“It has always confounded me why we wouldn’t do that,” said County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.
Libraries are contributing to their own statistical downfall, in traditional measures, by expanding digital collections and offerings, reducing the need for physical checkouts.
“It’s our fault, in part, that everyone thinks 100 percent of our brand is books,” said Kit Hadley, the director in St. Paul. “I simply disagree with that. And I’ve always felt that counting circulation the way we do is crazy.
“When I was at Minneapolis, someone would go to a suburban Hennepin library and take out 50 books, but at our Franklin Avenue branch, new immigrant parents were so scared of losing them, they wouldn’t let kids take more than one or two. Which is more valuable? It’s harder to count the things that matter.”
National figures suggest that libraries in Minnesota — home to 3M’s burgeoning digital library business — are racing into a digital future much faster than in most states.
Minnesota ranks low in per capita spending on libraries, according to the federal government’s Institute of Museum and Library Services, with little more than half as much as Ohio’s libraries. Visits also lag, as does total circulation.
But in per capita e-books, Minnesota ranks in the top five. And e-book availability is expanding as libraries move to share their collections beyond their own boundaries.
Digital could bring in a whole new constituency: people like Mona Phaff of Minneapolis.