Physical visits to the libraries in Washington County have drifted downward in the past few years, from 53 arrivals per hour in 2011 to 46 last year.

But use of digital resources has soared. Visits by computer and other devices have multiplied 15 times over since 2007. They are heading for the 1 million mark per year.

“Online is effectively another branch,” said Stu Wilson, of the St. Paul-based Library Strategies Consulting Group, which is helping guide a rethinking of the county library system’s future.

Against that backdrop, the county has just named as its new library director not a librarian but an educator: Keith Ryskoski, the former superintendent of schools in the Stillwater district.

“Libraries of the future will be unlike libraries of today,” county administrator Molly O’Rourke told members of the County Board in a memo announcing the appointment.

While it isn’t totally clear what they’ll be like, she added, they will need the skill sets that Ryskoski brings: a background in education and in how technology is used in learning.

In a county where a “crazy high” share of households, in Ryskoski’s words, hold library cards — roughly 80 percent — there are powerful tugs in multiple directions.

“Everyone wants a library in their back yard, their hometown, with all the comprehensive services, and that’s realistically not possible,” the new director added. “How do we build on the foundations of what people love about the library but also take a look at that 5-year-old whose whole life has been tablets, iPads” — and their future library needs?

“We’re not going to eliminate all books, that isn’t on anyone’s radar, but how do we enhance what we have, realizing that the library is always going to be a community gathering point? What do people need, want, expect?”

Reservations

Consultant Wilson led a pair of public forums in late May and early June, and he stressed education as a key role as libraries face a drop in conventional borrowing of books and other materials.

There’s “nothing but change” in the library business these days, he added: “It’s the best of times and worst of times. Exciting things are happening, even as some traditional services are declining or threatened.”

The response from a sizable crowd in Stillwater this month was a bit grumpy, with respect to both the brick-and-mortar version of the library and its digital side.

Users were unhappy about access to library buildings: their placement (mostly in the western part of the county) and their hours (not always open on Sundays, a better weekend day for many families than activity-crowded Saturdays). And they complained that the system’s website is flawed.

“Make ordering books more elegant,” one person wrote on one of dozens of Post-it notes stuck on the walls at the consultants’ invitation. “Software is very clunky.”

Were critics drawn to the forum more than fans were? That should become clearer, library officials say, via surveys now being conducted. Fifteen hundred randomly selected households got questionnaires in the mail in recent days, and the results will influence a strategic planning exercise that is to conclude by the end of 2015.

Five trends

Wilson praised Washington County’s library system as sophisticated and “complex for your population and size.” The Forest Lake branch is a “spectacular” guide to the future, he said, while “we often send out-of-town visitors to the branch in Woodbury” to see how a library can be attached to an indoor park and other features.

Still, he said, the county library system no less than others is seeking out new roles and eyeing in particular five big trends:

• Preschool literacy: filling gaps left by K-12 education.

• Serving teens, especially in communities that don’t have teen centers.

• Technology: Some libraries are choosing the Apple store model, with librarians freed from desks and roving with tablets instead.

• Training programs: lifelong learning in things like tech competence and languages.

• Gathering spaces: the library as public, nondenominational space for meetings and the like.

Amy Worwa, senior library manager of the Forest Lake branch, said the proximity of that eight-year-old facility to a county service center means it often lures in nonusers of libraries, who are “amazed at what a library now is.”

For instance, the building offers small spaces that parents and children can use to read together.

It also recognizes, she said, that some people are too rushed to browse: Folks reserve from home, find their holds waiting right in the entry area (along with new acquisitions to give them ideas), then “self check out and are on their way in two minutes, no problem.”

That very same approach, though, was bemoaned by many of the traditional library users at the public forum, who love the old-fashioned greet-the-librarian small-town flavor of a Lake Elmo or Marine on St. Croix library.

Libraries have to try to serve all kinds, consultant Wilson said afterward. “What you heard reflected who was in the room, and that’s an important constituency, but I’m not sure it reflects all of the county.”

Ideally, he added, automation then can free librarians for more intense human contact than happened years ago, whether it’s library-sponsored book clubs or half-hour consultations.