A corps of volunteers has fueled the Lake Elmo public library’s rebirth after its separation from the county system. Opinions vary over whether the city can sustain its undertaking.
More than a year after losing Washington County funding, the city-owned Lake Elmo Public Library has an army of 60 volunteers, a stock of 20,000 books and a drive to prove critics wrong.
“The perception was we were going to fail,” said volunteer Renee Murray. “I don’t know of many libraries like this that have succeeded. It’s because it’s more than a library — it’s a community gathering place.”
A lack of users prompted the county in 2012 to propose a kiosk library system, but a group of volunteers snubbed the idea and the City Council voted to start up the city’s own library, which opened in September and runs on community support from donations.
From the books to decorative paintings all the way down to the shelves, more than 90 percent of Lake Elmo library’s stock is donated, Murray said. Of the 8,000-plus books on its shelves, only 88 were purchased since it opened eight months ago.
“Our strength is in the process,” City Administrator Dean Zuleger said.
But Anne Smith, the only Lake Elmo City Council member to vote against creating the library, said the idea was hatched without a clear plan, and for that reason she expects the city inevitably will be back in the Washington County library system.
The city spent $240,000 and bought a foreclosed building last year on Lake Elmo Avenue, retaining the $260,000 collected in library taxes per year to spend on its own library.
“Running a library is a business,” Smith said. “You have to look at it like one; $250,000 is not enough to create and maintain a library. That’s nothing to run something like this. Plus, we left one of the best county library systems in Minnesota.”
It’s not unheard of for a city library to operate independently from its county, but similar situations in South St. Paul, Bayport and Stillwater still have an associate status with their county system. In exchange for a fee to the county, the libraries get access to county collections and services for patrons.
Not in Lake Elmo, where every employee is a volunteer and they’re still in the process of hiring a library director, who would be the only paid employee.
The library has more than 750 library cards issued. Murray said they are adding customers at nearly 100 library cards per month, with 128 added in April.
“We’re just very happy all the gloom and doom that was kind of told to us as we were trying this hasn’t happened,” Zuleger said.
It was a little gloomy at first with — often empty seats during the library’s first five months of operations — until volunteers made a few key changes.
To start 2013, the group organized themselves into committees, deciding to expand the library’s open hours from 24 to 36 hours a week while focusing on community programming for children and adults.
Before the county-run library closed, Washington County had cut operation hours down to 20 per week, which led to the stigma of a vacant library, Murray said.
Town residents like Joyce Murray, who volunteers three days a week, said support for a library has always existed in Lake Elmo. It just needed the right people to revive the pulse, she said.
“It’s fantastic,” Murray said. “We feel this library is as good as it’s ever been in Lake Elmo.”
Still, there’s some debate about whether to return to the Washington County library system.
Zuleger said the looming benefit of switching back is to gain entry to the interlibrary loan system — a way of interchanging books from Minnesota’s libraries.
To make up for a lack of an interlibrary loan program, Renee Murray said when patrons request books that Lake Elmo doesn’t have, she’ll purchase them online and keep them in stock.
“The average library loan is pretty costly,” Murray said. “It can be around $25, where we spend a little over $10 just purchasing the books and keeping them here.”
Smith said the volunteers’ work has been phenomenal, but it’s not sustainable.
“I think the inevitable is that we’ll end up back in the Washington County library system,” she said. “I, for one, will be happy.
“Now we have a building. If they want to keep the books, the Washington County library system can come in and code them. There may be some compromise on the horizon.”
Andrew Krammer is a University of Minnesota student journalist on assignment for the Star Tribune.