The fate of the South St. Paul Public Library, the first library building in Dakota County, worries local historian Lois Glewwe.

“It isn’t the building,” said Glewwe, who has written books about the city, a former meatpacking center. “It’s the whole character, the charm, the unique nature of the library we’re after, not just the preservation.”

It’s not simply the age of the library, built in 1927 and expanded in 1965, that matters. It’s the only city-run library in the county, independent of the Dakota County Library system.

And its future is in limbo. Last week, the South St. Paul City Council voted to study whether to merge the library with the county library system, which would make it a branch library and shift its operational and maintenance costs to the county. The study still needs to be approved by the Dakota County Board.

Residents fear that such a move would eventually swallow their library whole, resulting in the loss of its downtown Colonial-style brick building, its small-town feel and nearly a century of local history.

But the library doesn’t truly meet current patrons’ needs, said Director Kathy Halgren. “The [merger] idea has come up over and over since the county was formed,” she said.

The library also needs extensive work, including a new roof and upgrades to its heating plant and wiring, city officials said.

“Making improvements … without knowing the long-term plan for the library could result in wasted tax dollars,” said City Administrator Joel Hanson.

Single municipal libraries are increasingly rare in the metro area, with only three others remaining besides South St. Paul: Bayport, Stillwater and Columbia Heights. City-run libraries share room with other services at municipal buildings in at least two other cities, Marine on St. Croix and Newport.

While St. Paul has its own library system, Minneapolis’ libraries became part of the Hennepin County Library system a decade ago. Lake Elmo broke away from the Washington County system, operated for seven years under city auspices, and then returned to the county system last year. Anoka’s city library was integrated into the Anoka County system in the mid-1990s, but then closed in 2000.

Belonging to a county system has many benefits, most library officials said. But others lament losing a community hub.

“I think you lose some of your identity when you become part of a bigger thing,” said Carol Moen, a former administrative assistant at the Anoka library. “I don’t think there were advantages.”

Merger prospects

The study approved last week by the South St. Paul City Council will consider various aspects of a merger with the county library system: what would happen to employees, the impact on library services, how assets would be transferred and whether to remodel or build a new structure.

City officials also are looking for a commitment from the county not to close the library, or to give the city the option of resuming services.

Dakota County Library Director Margaret Stone declined to comment on merger prospects. But county library officials have said they don’t want to take on the South St. Paul Library in its current state, Hanson said, because of building issues and the costs associated with correcting them.

That bothers Glewwe, who wonders who would want an empty library building if the county built a new one elsewhere. She also questioned whether Dakota County would even consider putting a new library in South St. Paul when the West St. Paul library is just minutes away.

Glewwe said she wishes city officials would seriously consider a 2016 study that recommended an addition and other upgrades to the existing library, at a cost of $4.5 million.

“I don’t think that it would be a hard sell to ask for support to renovate the very first library in Dakota County,” she said. “Five million [dollars] is a drop in the bucket considering the billions of dollars … we’ve given to bond referendums.”

Halgren said she also liked the 2016 study. Libraries have changed, she said, requiring different kinds of spaces. “We get asked constantly for study rooms,” she said. “We have one meeting room, that’s it.”

When social service workers recently met with clients at the library, some had to use common areas because there was only one private room. Musicians perform in the children’s area, which means the whole library can hear them, Halgren said. She pointed out the lack of parking and limited computers.

Council Member Tom Seaberg agreed that the current library, with an annual operating budget of nearly $770,000, doesn’t meet patrons’ needs.

“I think we would have a respectful debate with anybody in this room who thinks that the 1927 building makes a great library anymore. It doesn’t,” Seaberg said.

He emphasized that the study approved by the council was the city’s idea. Study results are expected by midsummer, with a final decision on the library’s future slated for November.

‘We know our community’

At two of the Twin Cities’ other remaining city-run libraries, the consensus was that communities love having smaller, more personal libraries and want to keep them.

Jill Smith, director of the Bayport Public Library, said that though residents might get a tax break with a county takeover, local control remains important. As with the libraries in South St. Paul, Stillwater and Columbia Heights, Bayport patrons have access to materials from across the county and state because they are affiliate libraries.

Columbia Heights opened its 22,000-square-foot library in 2016. Library Director Renee Dougherty said the community is proud of its independent library. She’s heard patrons cite concerns about reduced hours or losing services if it merged with Anoka County.

“It reminds me a lot of rural libraries,” Dougherty said. “We know our community, we know the people that come.”

On the other hand, workers are so focused on day-to-day operations, Dougherty said, that they don’t have time to consider big-picture issues.

In Lake Elmo, where the library started as a county branch and then went on its own for seven years, patrons were “ecstatic” to rejoin the county system last year, said former manager Martha Riel. Many of those who were wary of losing their independence ended up happy about having access to more materials, she said.

Ken Behringer, executive director of the Metropolitan Library Service Agency (MELSA), has seen several city-owned libraries join larger networks over the years either for financial reasons or to gain resources.

“It’s a public policy decision and there aren’t straight mathematical answers for these things,” he said. “I wish them a good and vibrant conversation.”