Even as Minnesota libraries spend hundreds of millions on building expansion and renovation, fewer and fewer people are visiting those buildings to check out books.

In the two most recent years for which final statewide numbers have been released, metro area libraries saw a drop in circulation of more than 2 million items, and visits fell by nearly 900,000. In St. Paul, since circulation peaked in 2009, it has fallen by 25 percent.

Yet e-book downloads from libraries are soaring, suggesting that people still want to read — they just don't have to visit the library to do it.

In this shifting landscape, libraries are working to reinvent themselves. They are adding playlands for kids, drive-up windows and eye-catching programming such as lectures on beer with brewers from Surly — with sampling to follow at a nearby pub. They're embarking on strategic rethinks and surveying patrons.

"We are at a crossroads, a defining moment, for libraries," said Jake Grussing, the newly named director of the Scott County system.

The declining numbers put libraries in an awkward position when laying claim on public dollars. As his system's former library director retired last year, Scott County Administrator Gary Shelton told her that his initial thought was that "with the Internet and a lot of other things, libraries were becoming passe, that they were a thing of the past, at least a physical library."

Some library futurists say there is a case for fewer library buildings, and fiscal watchdogs are inclined to agree. Tom Steward, investigative director for the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota's government transparency unit, said his group hasn't probed libraries yet but means to.

"I would argue that libraries have an identity crisis as they try to be all things to all consumers and figure out a niche, and are spending a lot of taxpayer dollars in the process," he said.

"We're at a moment of, 'Let's try some stuff,' " said Hennepin County's top librarian, Lois Langer Thompson. "Things could change a lot in even a year or two."

The Hennepin County system is in the midst of a vigorous building program, with $103 million in work planned through 2018. St. Paul this year is embarking on its most ambitious facilities program in nearly a decade, and other counties have been building as well.

But Hennepin County, for one, is doing its briskest business on the Internet.

"If downloadables were a branch, they would be our busiest branch," Thompson said. "We're one of six systems in the nation to top a million downloads a year."

New mission

Libraries say a good deal of the spending on facilities is about reshaping outdated buildings to fit a changing world, and they argue that their services still provide value. With its own visitor numbers plummeting, for instance, Washington County is touting the savings it provides for residents: "By borrowing just three or four titles from the library, homeowners save enough to pay the property tax levied to support library service," according to a report the system put online.

Librarians know criticisms are out there.

"People are saying, 'Why are we even funding libraries anymore?' " said Kirsty Smith, director of a 31-branch system based in St. Cloud. "They are saying, 'People don't go to libraries anymore. Heck, people don't even read anymore.' And that's just my husband!"

With checkouts fading, the number of programs is exploding as libraries seek new ways to get people in the door.

Between 2011 and 2012, the latest year for which all libraries have released data, total circulation fell by millions of items, but the number of programs — musical performances, author talks, computer classes and the like — leapt by nearly 3,000.

Most of that increase came in St. Paul, which launched a "Mobile Workplace" program of computer access and training at off-library sites and accelerated a program aimed at adults needing computers for job hunts and other research.

St. Paul has bought sewing machines and 3-D printers for budding entrepreneurs, as part of a "maker" movement in which libraries provide a setting for launching enterprises and adding to job skills.

Libraries also stress their role as a communal gathering place. Last month, organizers of a daylong "Star Wars" event at Dakota County's Rosemount library hoped for 200 participants, bought 500 cookies just in case — and were floored to see 1,500 people swarm through.

"Our services are more than books, computers, desks, chairs," said Dakota director Ken Behringer. "It's a broad range of programs, from early childhood literacy to programs for seniors. It's a transitional time, but it's about access, not format."

Scott County's Grussing visited the highly touted Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library system, with what he called its "staggering" array of national honors.

"They are planning $100 million in brand new or renovated facilities," he said, "and I saw mock-ups from architects that, if you hadn't told me I was looking at a new library, there was nothing to tell you they were. Books were pushed off to the side."

Digital vs. physical

To limit losses of would-be borrowers, libraries also are making life easier for the remaining seekers of physical books and the like. Hennepin, for instance, is opening earlier in the morning and more often on Sundays and taking steps to reduce the monthslong wait times facing those seeking popular titles.

One big change: Soon Hennepin's libraries will begin accepting donated bestsellers to help get them in people's hands sooner.

"It has always confounded me why we wouldn't do that," said County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.

Libraries are contributing to their own statistical downfall, in traditional measures, by expanding digital collections and offerings, reducing the need for physical checkouts.

"It's our fault, in part, that everyone thinks 100 percent of our brand is books," said Kit Hadley, the director in St. Paul. "I simply disagree with that. And I've always felt that counting circulation the way we do is crazy.

"When I was at Minneapolis, someone would go to a suburban Hennepin library and take out 50 books, but at our Franklin Avenue branch, new immigrant parents were so scared of losing them, they wouldn't let kids take more than one or two. Which is more valuable? It's harder to count the things that matter."

National figures suggest that libraries in Minnesota — home to 3M's burgeoning digital library business — are racing into a digital future much faster than in most states.

Minnesota ranks low in per capita spending on libraries, according to the federal government's Institute of Museum and Library Services, with little more than half as much as Ohio's libraries. Visits also lag, as does total circulation.

But in per capita e-books, Minnesota ranks in the top five. And e-book availability is expanding as libraries move to share their collections beyond their own boundaries.

Digital could bring in a whole new constituency: people like Mona Phaff of Minneapolis.

She seldom visited libraries in the past, she said, not wanting to lug heavy books or preferring to just buy a book rather than navigate library hours. Today, though, reading digital downloads, "I'm on the site several times a week."

Libraries might be thought of as "changing the menu and how we serve the meal," said Marlene Moulton Janssen, director of the Anoka County system, which has done very little building or renovation. "It's less physical, more digital. But we're still fulfilling the mission we've always had, to connect our communities to ideas, information and inspiration."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285