To Grace and Tom Fix and their daughters, the public library in Washington County is more than a place to satisfy intellectual curiosity. They think it should be a place for neighbors in the rural Lower St. Croix Valley to gather. And it isn’t.

The Fixes and other residents recently went to a County Board meeting to tell commissioners what’s lacking at Valley Library in Lakeland, describing crowded aisles between book stacks and patrons having to walk through a boiler room to reach the restroom.

“Residents of our community really do deserve a better library,” said Beverly McDonough of St. Mary’s Point.

Valley Library, the smallest Washington County branch library and the seventh smallest public library in the metro area, is seeing a public demand for more space at a time when many other libraries in this digital age need less.

The 2,400-square-foot library, housed in a shopping mall in the city of 1,800 along the St. Croix River opposite Hudson, Wis., hasn’t changed much in 30 years. Residents say it’s cramped and lacks community meeting space, one of the principal draws of modern libraries.

Valley Library is a place to study for 15-year-old Sofia Fix and her 12-year-old sister, Ella, and also to research Girl Scout projects. The girls attend a charter school that has no library, so they use Valley extensively, their mother said.

McDonough, a retired teacher, complimented Valley librarians for having “utilized every inch” of the library, but she said it’s still not enough. The library needs more computers but doesn’t have room for them, while resources for children are limited.

“All children should be exposed to the wonders and the treasures that await them at a library,” she told commissioners.

Changing libraries

More libraries are making additional space for community meetings, as eye contact becomes more important in a world of digital research, said Ken Behringer, executive director of the Metropolitan Library Service Agency.

Libraries also have become booming markets for learning technology. Overall, he said, “the expansion of buildings has exceeded reductions by a substantial margin.”

Washington County opened Valley in the early 1980s to serve the small cities and townships along the St. Croix River. Now, as the will to expand gains traction in places like Lakeland, Lakeland Shores, Lake St. Croix Beach, St. Mary’s Point and Afton, county officials plan to ask residents what they want.

“There’s a lot of community pride in the library. People have stories about how the library has impacted their lives and the lives of their families and friends,” said library director Keith Ryskoski.

Commissioner Gary Kriesel, who represents the Lakeland area, said officials don’t want to repeat mistakes of the past. Lake Elmo withdrew from the Washington County library system in 2011 after disputes over limited hours and declining programming.

“Since I’ve become a commissioner I’ve learned a few things. If you don’t provide a library with adequate hours, it’s going to fail,” Kriesel said. “We have a lot of energized people down there who really support having that library improved.”

The County Board’s desire for a larger Valley branch represents a shift in recent thinking that digital access would make books disappear.

“Some have predicted this massive decline,” Ryskoski said, but brick and mortar libraries are returning in popularity, in large part because of the demand for gathering space. At the county’s Oakdale library, meeting space is booked almost every hour the library is open, he said.

Washington County is planning to replace two other libraries considered substandard: Park Grove in Cottage Grove and Wildwood in Mahtomedi. When commissioners on Tuesday approved architectural contracts for those projects, Kriesel said he wanted Valley Library patrons to know they won’t be forgotten even if their new library is housed in leased space.

When Ryskoski met with commissioners at a March workshop to discuss Valley Library’s future, there was a consensus the library needed to move to another location.

“I don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort figuring out how that undersized existing space might be able to work,” Kriesel said recently. “It’s not going to work long-term. It’s certainly not going to benefit the community for kids’ programming and teen outreach and meeting rooms and everything else that they desire.”

Public support

Kriesel said he’s heard from every mayor in the Lower Valley and many residents as well that they want a change. Concern over existing space shouldn’t reflect negatively on the mall owner, who’s been supportive, Kriesel said.

“My position has been pretty clear the past few years. I’m willing to consider a levy increase to provide good library services back to our communities,” he said.

Sara Meyer, a St. Mary’s Point resident and a member of the county’s library advisory board, said a new library would be a place where seniors can stay updated on technology, book clubs can meet and regular family programming is provided “so they can learn and be inspired close to home.”

Ryskoski said that Lower Valley residents will be heard.

“We’re just pleased that people are excited about the library, support it, and are interested in enhancing services,” he said. “It’s a good problem to have.”