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Washington County libraries consider strategic plan to fix obsolete model

Washington County is considering a strategic plan for the future of its libraries, including the Park Grove Branch in Cottage Grove. (Bulletin file photo)

The world of libraries is changing.

That’s a phrase heard often since e-books’ popularity continues to increase, a trend prompting Washington County libraries to consider a strategic plan to identify future needs of local libraries.

A Washington County Board workshop discussion last week concluded that public input combined with statistics and studies will help officials pinpoint a new direction for libraries.

“None of us have a crystal ball,” Commissioner Lisa Weik, of Woodbury, said. “Things are in flux.”

She emphasized, though, that libraries are an “economic engine” to the county and a strategic plan with the help of a consultant will contribute to the county’s continued economic development efforts.

The county is hoping to answer questions regarding growth demands, opportunities for partnerships with cities and school districts and how technology will impact space needs.

“I don’t think we’ll see as many bookshelves in libraries,” Washington County Libraries Director Pat Conley said. “You’ll see some, but not as many.”

The county library system loaned 2.2 million physical and virtual copies in 2013 with 825,000 in-person visits and 132,000 digital downloads, according to county figures.

But since the libraries aren’t just books and downloads, numbers also show more than 18,000 attended toddler story times, 14 percent more than 2012. Additionally, nearly 5,000 children signed up for summer reading.

Weik said the partnership between the city of Woodbury, YMCA and senior housing at the R.H. Stafford branch has worked well to provide a comprehensive approach to attract visitors to the library.

“If we’re looking at the demise of paper books over time,” she said, “maybe look into partnerships.”

Many library users don’t check out books, according to statistics, and frequent facilities for computer use and wireless networks.

Though there are many questions yet to be answered, the main one is, “What’s the future of libraries going to look like?”

“Well, we don’t know,” Conley said.

Hardback books will still be around 30 years from now, but they may be more expensive than virtual products, she predicts.

County commissioners wondered if library lockers and kiosks are becoming obsolete as well and what the new library model should entail to meet various population demographics.

Katherine Cram, a library board director, said readers of all ages still want both versions of books. She told county commissioners that more community engagement is essential during the strategic planning process.

“The model is broken or at least it’s obsolete,” she said, noting that county libraries need to provide services for everybody with community input.

The County Board did not take action on hiring a consultant to work on the strategic plan at the Tuesday, April 1 meeting, but all members were supportive of the measure.

The board will take a vote at an upcoming meeting.