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Vision unclear for future of small libraries

As Washington County Library officials begin reworking the system's strategic vision, Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty hopes his city's library is not in their sights.

Library Director Pat Conley and other county officials began updating the library system's two- to four-year strategic plan last week facing a host of unknowns, chief among them how much state aid lawmakers at the State Capitol will cut as they wrestle with a $5 billion budget gap. State funds help support county libraries.

"The vision needs a revision," Conley said of the libraries during a presentation last week to Washington County commissioners.

That vision, according to the library system's strategic framework, includes engaging young readers; providing entry to the online world; promoting informed, knowledgeable users; and inspiring curiosity.

And, depending on how deeply legislators cut funding to Minnesota counties, it could also mean the further limiting of services at Washington County's four smallest libraries in Newport, Lakeland, Lake Elmo and Marine on St. Croix -- or even their closure.

"My goal is to keep (the library) open, keep books there and keep it operating," Geraghty said. The mayor and Newport Library Board members met last week for a second time in recent months with Conley and Washington County Administrator Jim Schug.

In Washington County's 2011 budget, officials allotted enough funding to keep the county's four small libraries -- or, "boutique" libraries, as county officials call them -- operating as usual, with the hope that the county would have a clearer picture of any state aid losses by mid-year.

Roughly halfway to that mark, Schug said city and county officials were having "very preliminary" discussions about ways the Newport branch and other small libraries could remain open while lowering staffing costs.

Hours at those branches have already been curtailed to 20 hours per week, with no weekend hours, as the county's libraries have seen staffing reduced from 113 at the beginning of 2009 to 87 currently.

"The challenge is matching the resources to the demand," Schug said, noting the continued heavy use at the system's busier libraries in Woodbury and Cottage Grove.

One option discussed at the meeting, officials said, was the concept of a digital library with computer access, a kiosk to order books online for pickup, and other services -- minus the books.

It is an idea in-tune with what Conley told county commissioners last week: innovation is key to the success of the county's libraries, she said, citing a recent shift toward offering more e-books, which are exploding in popularity.

"The only way a library survives is recognizing the past is the past," she told the board.