The Marine on St. Croix Village Hall looks about the same as it did when it was built in 1888. It still serves as a meeting place for local government and, since 1968, has also been home to the small city's library. The only noticeable difference is the public book lockers that now sit outside, a reminder of how volunteers saved their library.
The one-room Marine Branch Library was in danger of closing for good in 2011 when Washington County decided to withdraw funding of small branch libraries in Marine on St. Croix, Newport and Lake Elmo, which collectively did 3 percent of the county library system's book loan transactions.
"It stunned a lot of people," said Bill Simpson, an avid library patron and volunteer. "The library is one of the main institutions in Marine. The thought of it not existing — it was hard to believe that could happen."
Rather than watch the library disappear, the people of Marine on St. Croix, Scandia and May Township struck a deal with the county. Today the library is staffed entirely by about 30 regular volunteers who manage seven shifts a week and coordinate community programming for children and adults.
Pat Conley, the county's library director, said she is pleased with how the county, the city and the nonprofit Marine Library Association have worked together. The county now has a similar relationship with Newport's library. In Lake Elmo, a new city-run library no longer has a connection with the county.
"We hated the thought of leaving those communities," Conley said. "It was very clear to me early on that the people I was dealing with in Marine were avid library users. It's the people, with the right mix of enthusiasm and knowledge, that kept it running."
The county maintains a 2,000-book browsing collection, which it updates periodically and still circulates through the county system. It also provides the technology necessary to keep patrons connected to the interlibrary loans that deliver books to the 24/7 public lockers outside the building. The city donated the space in Village Hall and pays for Internet service and electricity.
"Marine has places to eat and buy groceries, but the library is the only outlet that we have that gives some sort of mental and imaginative stimulation," said library patron Sue Lieber. "It's a little quiet place where you can go get lost in the world of someone else's writing."
The range of materials in the permanent community library collection would rival almost any other, with audiobooks, large print books, DVDs and CDs available for children, teens and adults.
Sue Logan, a volunteer and president of the Marine Library Association, said having an up-to-date collection is what regular library users want most. Items not available in the small room, such as older history books and research materials, can be delivered through the county's interlibrary loan system.
A volunteer spirit in Marine on St. Croix has kept the library vibrant, just as volunteers keep the city's fire department and historical society operating.
"The community as a whole is very volunteer-oriented. It's kind of ingrained in the population," said library volunteer Christine Cundall. "Limited resources lead people coming together to get what they want. If you don't have volunteers, it dies."
Callie Sacarelos is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.