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Several Twin Cities library systems are considering an “open libraries” model that would give patrons access to books, computers and other resources by themselves at times when the library isn’t open and staffed. Two west metro libraries already use the idea on a small scale.

The setup relies on technology — via a central management system — to let people enter the library, check out items and log onto computers — all while video monitors record their actions. There’s a phone connected to a central library or an on-call librarian so patrons can ask questions. Automated systems announce when the library is closing, flick the lights off and on and can even operate amenities like a gas fireplace on a schedule.

“It’s a reasonable solution, I think, to a very long-standing library problem, which is … we’re rarely able to be open when everyone wants us to be open,” said Jake Grussing, library director in Scott County, which is studying the concept. “I feel confident that this is a good direction for us to move in.”

The practice, part of a longer-term move toward self-service libraries, is common in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, where budget cuts forced libraries to get creative to remain open. Officials at Bibliotheca, the leading company in North America that sells the required software, counts more than 750 libraries globally as users.

In North America, it’s still a novelty. Just five library systems — eight libraries total — have implemented it since 2016. Here, open libraries aren’t just about saving money — they’re also a way to extend and standardize a library’s sometimes erratic hours so more people can use the community space. Advocates say the arrangement lets libraries assign staff during hours when they’re most needed and frees them up to do more meaningful tasks than checking out books or turning out lights.

The idea is gaining traction in the Twin Cities area in various forms. Hennepin County libraries tried it two summers ago when Ridgedale Library was under renovation, with an extended-hours pickup area for hold items and a small collection of books for browsing. Officials continued the system once construction was complete; the Eden Prairie Library is doing the same thing now during its remodeling.

“It kind of started small and people really responded to it,” said Jenn Straumann, Hennepin County Library services manager.

Anoka County is looking into the option as a way to increase access to meeting rooms while also discussing wider use, said Library Director Maggie Snow.

Scott County’s Grussing said he’s been fascinated with the model since 2014, when a Danish colleague explained it. He believes the county will start using it in the next two to three years, ideally to keep libraries open 14 to 16 hours a day.

But there are risks.

“Here’s what happens when you roll out a program like this: About 10% of the community flips out and thinks, ‘Oh my God, teens are going to have sex and they’re going to steal everything in the library,’ ” said Tony Molaro, former director of St. Catherine University’s master’s program in library and information science. “That has never materialized.”

Another is the future of librarians’ jobs.

“If public libraries across the country do this and it’s successful, I think that could lead to a conversation about, well, how necessary is it to continue to staff the library at its current level?” Grussing said.

Boosted use

Ventura County, Calif., began using the system at its Hill Road branch in February 2018. Library Director Nancy Schram was nervous about how it would go, so she camped out in the library parking lot early one morning.

At 8 a.m., three patrons lined up. Two knew each other, but even so, they diligently swiped their library cards, resisting a temptation to hold the door open for each other. “Right there, I said this is going to work,” Schram recalled.

That first month, patrons used the new “express hours” 90 times. In April, that number climbed to 160, Schram said. Among the biggest fans are parents of young children and retired people.

“The community has embraced the library as its own,” she said. “I see it even more than any other library I’ve worked in or been associated with.”

Adding 12 “open library” hours a week cost almost 60% less than if they had paid staff, Schram said.

Different libraries adopt the system in different ways, though a common sequence is adding early-morning hours, followed by a few more on weekends and evenings, officials said.

Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne, president of the Public Library Association, said she sees it as a good supplement to regular staffed hours. “This is certainly not a replacement [to librarians],” she said. “The real value is the trained staff who are available to help the community with specific needs.”

Scott Hackstadt, Biblio­theca’s director of Open+ North America, cited the Freelton branch of the Hamilton Public Libraries in Ontario as a success. When that library added 36 “open library” hours weekly, patrons rediscovered their library, leading to a 300% increase in library program attendance, he said. To compensate, the library actually added staff hours.

Libraries subscribe to the system at a flat cost of about $1,000 a month. There’s also a one-time installation fee ranging from $2,500 to $7,000, depending on the library’s size.

In Scott County, Grussing is reviewing the study results and staying cautious; he said he wants to ensure that city leaders are on board. Staff reactions, he said, range from “serious anxiety” to “cautious optimism.”

Grussing said he would probably try the idea first at smaller branches, such as Jordan. If it succeeds, he said, he’d like to see it used widely.

“Libraries have been really, really good historically about thinking about how customers can fit into the library,” he said. “The change is … how do we make the library fit into the lives of customers?”