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Lake Elmo used the money it would have paid to the county for library service to buy a former car dealership and transform it into its own library.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

“You don’t get to build a library from the ground up,” newly hired library director Olivia Moris said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Lake Elmo library service begins new chapter

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW
  • Star Tribune
  • August 10, 2012 - 5:46 PM

If you were to assemble a library from scratch, you'd need a few things: For starters, a robust collection of best sellers, biographies and children's books in which an elephant named Babar is king.

Of course, you'd need shelves to display them. Computers and printers are a necessity. Tables and chairs a must. Newspapers, magazines and reference materials would be on the list, too. A coffee pot would be nice. And above all, you'd need a building to house it.

The pieces have come together in Lake Elmo, where on Sept. 7 the city will open its own downtown library in a space known by locals as the "clock building," after Washington County closed the Rosalie Wahl Library in January to save money.

"With all the trouble libraries are facing, they are really brave," said Olivia Moris, who was hired this summer to be the part-time librarian. "You don't get to build a library from the ground up. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

City leaders became discontent with the Washington County system in recent years as hours and programs at the Wahl Library were reduced. When county officials floated a plan to close it, city leaders felt they could offer as good a library or better than Washington County. They voted to leave the system.

Lake Elmo used the $260,000 in tax money it paid to Washington County for library service to start its own.

Citizens rallied behind the effort, collecting thousands of books, chairs and tables, and even a wooden rocking horse and table for the children's room. And to add a Minnesota touch, volunteers installed book shelves that came from Garrison's Keillor's bookstore.

The city paid $240,000 for the 7,000-square-foot building at 3537 Lake Elmo Av., which once was a Buick dealer and a hardware store.

Library Board member Steve DeLapp said scores of volunteers have pitched in about 1,300 hours to repair walls, remodel the bathrooms, install counters and catalog books. An electrician checked out the outlets and light fixtures at no cost. A little girl even came in to help steam clean the carpets, Moris said.

"People have been generous," Moris said. "... It's been a community effort."

The layout includes a kid's room, a reference and media center, Internet stations, sections for adult fiction and nonfiction, a teen section, a board room and a kitchenette. Two rooms are set aside for hire. A child psychologist who has an office in the building and a computer repair firm will remain.

Despite all the support, Moris acknowledged that the library faces some steep challenges. It does not offer access to downloadable e-books. It's also a stand-alone library, meaning users can't tap into resources available through other library systems.

The nonprofit Friends of the Lake Elmo Library continues to accept donations of books, furniture, office supplies, coffee pots and supplies, along with computers, LCD monitors, printers, DVD players and TVs. Monetary donations will be used to sponsor library programs for children, youth and adults and buy library materials. And at the top of the list, volunteers will staff the library, which will be open about 32 hours a week.

It's difficult to know just how many of Lake Elmo's 8,000 residents will use the library. According to county officials, 600 Lake Elmo households paid $60 to continue to have borrowing privileges at Washington County libraries. They were reimbursed by the city.

There has been a lot of curiosity, Moris said. "We've had people wander in and take impromptu tours," Moris said. And with a five-year plan in place, "we have big ideas around here,'' she said.

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