The next chapter in the Washington County libraries’ story promises to be a page turner, said the man tasked with leading a redesign of the system.

Keith Ryskoski was appointed library director last month after spending most of his career in education, including a recent stint as assistant superintendent in School District 833.

It’s not a particularly big leap from education to libraries, Ryskoski said. As repositories of knowledge, libraries function much like schools.

“Being here, I realize there’s more similarities than I thought there would be,” he said. 

Few would argue that libraries need to change with the times, but the mention of e-books and librarians carrying mobile devices can raise the hackles of old-school book browsers.

“Libraries are always going to be part of the community,” Ryskoski said. “People in Washington County love their libraries. We want them to help us create the libraries of the future.”

A glimpse of the future should come early next year when the county announces its three- to five-year plan.

The county created a strategic planning committee in 2014 to re-evaluate its library system, which includes branches in Forest Lake, Oakdale, Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Lakeland, Mahtomedi and the Law Library in the Government Center in Stillwater. The system also works with associate libraries in Stillwater and Bayport, a community library in Marine on St. Croix, and provides express library service in Hugo and the Newport Transit Station.

An increasing number of customers get their books digitally without setting foot in a library. 

Last year, the Washington County Library System had 850,000 physical visits, according to an annual report, while 983,300 accessed the e-catalog.

Ryskoski said part of their mission is making brick-and-mortar libraries more central to the life of the community, where people can meet or further their education, such as learning about car maintenance or how to make a particular recipe. He said they’re listening to everybody’s input. 

“We all can’t be everything to everybody, but collectively we might get close to achieving that,” he said. “I certainly don’t want to paint the picture that we’re getting rid of every book in the place. We’re not even close to that.”

The strategic planning committee will also study how libraries can better function as training centers and gathering spaces for the community. One way to do that might be to provide access to specialized equipment, such as 3D printers, that people might not have at home, Ryskoski said.

Two other demographic groups can’t be ignored - toddlers and teenagers. 

Ryskoski wants to develop a closer relationship with local schools on preschool reading programs. 

“It makes sense that what we’re doing here is in alignment with what schools are doing,” he said.

Teens need to learn that libraries are more than just a default hangout, Ryskoski said. One way libraries might engage them is to provide access to a digital recording studio or other “maker space” where they would have a creative outlet.

The strategic planning committee is working with Library Strategies Consulting Group. Stu Wilson, principal of the St. Paul-based firm, led two recent public forums on the future of libraries.

Wilson said one of the challenges is determining the right mix of digital and print to offer. While e-books and other technology are here to stay, print books are the wild card, he said. 

“The heart and soul of print books is a little harder to forecast,” Wilson said. 

The question is, what the decline will be and how fast the decline will be and how it sits with the community.

“Publishers have really not made downloadable books more affordable than print books,” Wilson added. “Most publishers require that you have to buy downloadable books. Sometimes they cost even more.”

Ryskoski served as superintendent of the Stillwater Area School District before joining South Washington County Schools. As an assistant superintendent for District 833, he helped launch the one-to-one iPad pilot program during the 2013-14 school year.

He left District 833 in 2014 and most recently was interim executive director of labor relations and personnel services in the Elk River Area School District.

His experience will be valuable in helping integrating more digital options into libraries, Washington County Administrator Molly O’Rourke said.

“He’s also got a strong background in technology,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of technological changes. We’ve almost gotten to the point where we consider our library website as another branch.”