Washington County, idling at a digital crossroads and unsure where to turn with its branch libraries, plans to ask its residents for directions.

In the coming year, a steering committee will forge a new strategy for a library world that's becoming increasingly accessible by computers and other electronic devices. Just who will serve on that committee and what they should research was the subject of a County Board work session last week.

"The most important thing to me is that we have citizens participate," said Commissioner Gary Kriesel. "I don't want to get a lot of library insiders to go out and sell their vision of the future."

Commissioners concluded in April that they needed to review traditional approaches to funding libraries after discussing changing demographics and reader habits. Library Director Patricia Conley said at the time that more than half of all county library users no longer borrow printed books and prefer virtual resources.

Demand for e-books has spiraled since 2010 and will exceed demand for print books after 2020, Conley said.

The county has its flagship R.H. Stafford Library in Woodbury and maintains branches in Cottage Grove, Forest Lake, Oakdale, Lakeville and Mahtomedi. It also has a law library at its main campus in Stillwater and supplies some services, such as book kiosks, in Hugo, Marine on St. Croix and Newport.

At last week's board meeting, senior planner June Mathiowitz proposed a steering committee schedule that includes a public survey and focus groups. A report, drafted by next May, would be subject to public comment and board approval.

Commissioners echoed Kriesel's concerns that planners involve the public in discussions about how and where they use county libraries. Fran Miron, who represents the northern end of the county, said he wanted public postings of all steering committee meetings.

"That will enable people who use the library services to become more engaged if they choose to," Miron said.

Ted Bearth, who represents Oakdale and the surrounding area, said he wanted to see steering committee meetings moved around the county to make them widely available to the public.

"Be careful when you talk about the Internet," he said, referring to some older people who prefer other forms of communication. "There are a lot of people who don't have the expertise."

Kriesel said he preferred to see a business representative named to the committee who could explore public-private library partnerships. Commissioners repeatedly have stated their preferences for such partnerships in many county operations.

Kevin Corbid, the county's deputy administrator, cautioned against adding too many people to the steering committee and said public opinions could flow through focus groups.

The proposal that Mathiowitz presented to commissioners called for establishing a steering committee of at least eight members and as many as 11. They would represent the county's citizen library board, state librarians, cities and townships without libraries, and schools.

Because the discussion took place in a County Board work session, no vote was taken on the proposal.