See more of the story

University of Minnesota Libraries: They’re not just for students anymore.

In truth, they never were. But the library system at Minnesota’s flagship university has intensified its service to the larger community to such a degree in recent years that others are noticing.

The national Institute of Museum and Library Services has awarded the U system its 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. That’s a coveted distinction given to five U.S. libraries each year for service to their communities. Only twice before in the award’s history has it been bestowed on the library of a college or university.

That affirmation is both well-deserved and timely. The system has been a pioneer among the nation’s academic libraries in shifting its focus from amassing a large collection to connecting library users digitally with its own rich resources and those of libraries around the world. “Collections still play a role, but the emphasis has shifted to services” for users, the system’s website explains.

Those users are not just university students and faculty. They’re medical practitioners, industrial product developers, entrepreneurs, farmers, school and community librarians, and individual library patrons around the state. The Minitex materials-sharing service that the system operates receives and processes a minimum of 1,500 requests per day.

As libraries go digital, their reach increases. But perversely, they also become less visible — and their costs are often less understood. That’s what makes this award well-timed. It draws attention to the University of Minnesota Libraries’ contributions to the whole state just as a capital campaign is in the works to shore up the libraries’ financial foundation. The libraries are seeking $18 million in donations as part of a larger university capital campaign to be launched in September.

That’s a modest request for an enterprise that provides what ought to be deemed fundamental infrastructure in an information-based economy. Gov. Mark Dayton called it a “strategic asset” as he proclaimed Monday “University of Minnesota Libraries Day” in Minnesota. Minnesotans should know that it’s a nation-leading asset that will be at risk if it’s taken for granted.