St. Paulites are pretty passionate about their libraries.

When a proposal to shut down the Hamline Midway branch surfaced in 2009, a community uproar kept the doors open.

When Mayor Chris Coleman proposed cutting the library's 2010 budget by 6.7 percent, the City Council lessened the blow at the last minute to 4.8 percent.

When the economy turned sour, more people turned to the library.

While the St. Paul Public Library continues to keep its doors open to all, the civic institution has been going through a transformation. That has meant dealing with a leaner budget, fewer employees and an explosion in digital technology that presents both challenges and opportunities in fulfilling a century-old mission: to provide free public education.

"The mission hasn't changed, but everything about how we accomplish that mission is changing," said Kit Hadley, who took over as library director last August.

The library's priorities for 2010 are focused on early childhood learning, after-school enrichment and increasing job-training and searching skills.

None of St. Paul's 13 branches is closing, but open hours will be cut at several. In 2008, users visited a St. Paul library branch 2.8 million times. The number of visits has increased steadily over recent years.

The library took a 4.8 percent cut, or about $889,000, in its budget for 2010. About 90 percent of the library's budget is paid for by property taxes. The library spends 57 percent of its budget on staff.

Local government aid from the state will no longer be part of the library's budget, a move that should increase focus on the services provided and their costs, said Council Member Pat Harris, who is head of the library agency.

Open hours in 2010 have been reduced from 730 per week to 691.5 per week. The reduction would have been more, but the City Council at the last minute added back about 10 hours. What that means is that most branches will lose between two and six hours per week, and a couple of locations will gain between 30 minutes and three hours.

About 20 full-time positions were cut, from a workforce of about 185.

"All we can do is focus on raising revenue and being frugal to be well-positioned when things get better," Hadley said.

Some cost-saving measures include reducing the number of mailings and working with Ramsey County to share a software program.

The library also is looking into renting DVDs as a way to bring in revenue and exploring opportunities for foundation funding.

Not including computers used to search the library's catalog, there are 330 computers for public use in the system, a 32 percent increase since 2005. A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will add 52 computers over the next two years.

The Friends of the St. Paul Library, a nonprofit group that supports the library, has been contributing more than $1 million to the system each year, said spokeswoman Ann McKinnon. The Friends have been looking at new ways to join with foundations and corporations to increase the amount of money it can raise.

Considering the budget problems local and state governments have had to face, Harris said, the St. Paul Library is doing relatively well.

"The library has emerged not unscathed, but intact and prepared for the future," he said.

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Chris Havens • 612-673-4148