In June 2010, Jake Grussing got a pretty lowly job in the library world: re-shelving books in rural Minnesota.

On the last day of 2013, he became the director of a seven-branch library system stretching across Scott County, the ninth-most-populous county in the state.

“It’s a big jump,” concedes his former boss, Kirsty Smith, director of the 31-branch Great River Regional Library, based in St. Cloud. “But it doesn’t surprise me. He’s a wonderful, wonderful human being with a hugely developed work ethic.”

People look up to Grussing. They don’t have any choice: He’s 6-foot-8, having scored more than 1,000 points for his high school basketball team.

Still in his early 30s, his library science degree barely dry, he takes over the Scott system at a challenging moment. A build-out of new libraries has sprinkled them all across the county, most recently in Jordan and Elko New Market. But circulation is drooping as the economy improves and digital devices spread. There’s a lot of soul-searching and a quest for mission.

“My big thing, that I’ve already been harping on,” he said, “is that we have kids showing up for school unprepared. Public libraries really have an opportunity to step into that birth-to-kindergarten period and make a huge difference in kids learning to read and being prepared.

“It’s depressing how accurately we can predict who succeeds by third or fourth grade. Let’s make sure everyone is on the right track by the time the school district takes control.

“There’s also lifelong learning — entertainment and learning — for the rest of the community. There’s always going to be a need for the assistance and resources a library provides.”

Fast rise

Grussing hails from Morris, in central Minnesota west of Alexandria. He was heavily recruited for sports, but ended up playing just a year of college varsity ball.

In his former boss’s words, “he had a fast rise” in libraries.

After briefly working as a shelver, he became a branch assistant in Cokato, checking items in and out, and within a year was already a “library assistant 1” in St. Cloud. By August 2012, Smith said, he was “a coordinator, in charge of buying for our entire organization” of dozens of branches.

“He may be too shy to tell you this,” she said, “but while he was driving back and forth between Cokato and Sartell,” in the St. Cloud area, “which is quite a drive [about an hour each way], he was also studying for his master’s in library science,” doing the work online through the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“He justshowed real promise.”

Seeing his potential, she connected him, as mentor, with Patrick Losinski, chief executive of one of the nation’s most celebrated libraries, Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan, winner of numerous national awards, including Library Journal’s 2010 Library of the Year.

Said Losinski: “He is really, I think, a great young talent in our profession.”

What is it, exactly?

“I think honestly what makes him special,” his former boss said, “is his having been a star athlete, which means he learned teamwork, how to be a team player, how to weather adversity, how to have a work ethic. These are things that come from sports. How to grind it out day in, day out, having to be the best every time.”

Changing mission

Grussing had never seen any of the Scott libraries until he got the job, but he quickly made the rounds and also arranged to shut them down for a day to gather all the staff together for the first time in years.

“I’m very impressed right off the bat with the staff,” he said. “They are committed and passionate. And the community support is pretty remarkable: so many new buildings, one or two that are just barely 20 years old, and everything else a lot newer than that.”

The move from rural to suburban is not quite as big a jump as it might look, he said.

“It’s surprising how similar the two systems are, Scott County and Great River. Shak­opee, Savage and Prior Lake are pretty suburban, while places like New Prague are more rural and self-identify that way, but Great Rivers was the same way. Monticello and others toward town were exurbs, bedroom communities, and then we also had Staples, Eagle Bend, up to Todd County toward Fargo.

“Both have differing areas with certain needs and need to serve both equitably.”

With digital devices threatening to supplant old-fashioned books, he said, there’s a lot of stress these days over new missions for libraries. One is to be a communal center with lively programming.

“Based on the feedback, I believe I was hired to bring a real focus on 21st-century skills, being a good steward of the public dollar, and growing young minds — the idea that the library takes ownership of pre-K and also supports the rest of the education continuum in a person’s life.

“I’ve arrived at a time when county government is all about ‘delivering what matters,’ an initiative that looks at what we are really doing and measures outcomes — do we provide a meaningful service? And that’s a natural fit for me.”