Libraries of the future: What's next for Washington County?

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2013 - 2:01 PM

Washington County looks to sharpen its planning for how people read and learn.

Libraries in Washington County, already bowing to changes in readership, technology and government funding, could be headed for distinctive new configurations over the next decade.

The county’s chief librarian, Patricia Conley, explained in a presentation to the County Board last week that how people read, learn and communicate will determine how libraries of the future are designed — and where they are situated.

Aging, too, will play a part as the largest retirement bubble in the history of the nation takes shape.

“We still have this massive influx of baby boomers who are library users,” said Conley, who oversees county branch libraries in Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Lakeland, Oakdale, Mahtomedi and Forest Lake. The county also has affiliations with “express” libraries in Hugo, Marine on St. Croix and Newport, and with “associate” city libraries in Stillwater and Bayport.

Much of the discussion at Tuesday’s planning meeting, where Conley sought guidance from commissioners on policy directions for new libraries, related to technology.

“There is a reason why Borders and Blockbuster went of business. It’s called Amazon.com,” said Commissioner Gary Kriesel, referring to seismic market shifts in how consumers buy books and music. “I want Washington County to be the Amazon.com for our area. We don’t want to build a big white elephant and have them underutilized and overstaffed.”

Currently, library space per resident in Washington County ranks near the bottom metrowide. The .43 square feet per resident exceeds only that of Anoka County, which has .39 square feet. The traditional standard is .65 square feet, Conley said, but “it is simply a guideline.”

Commissioner Fran Miron cautioned against becoming too preoccupied with comparisons. “I would suggest we want to be more of a leader in Washington County than a follower,” he said.

Increasing use of technology to access collections will continue to bring changes to library buildings, Conley said. For example, less space might be devoted to traditional shelves and book stacks and more devoted to computers and space for consultation and education.

To illustrate changes in how people learn, Conley talked about one of the hottest new education trends in the country, known as Massive Open Online Courses. As many as 100,000 people might enroll in a single course offered through universities, she said.

Miron said the county should watch for opportunities to “co-locate” its libraries with economic development, possibly putting more libraries in places with restaurants and coffee shops. Commissioner Ted Bearth said he supported pairing libraries with county government agencies when practical.

That was the idea behind the county’s flagship library — R.H. Stafford in Woodbury, which was built in a complex that includes an indoor city park, a coffee shop, an amphitheater and an indoor connection to the YMCA. The county’s Hardwood Creek branch library, in the Forest Lake Service Center, was built under the same concept, said Don Theisen, the county’s public works manager.

Kriesel asked for an independent survey to better understand what Washington County residents want in their libraries.

“I think your concern is how will that impact our need for buildings?’’ Conley asked.

“Bingo,” he said.

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