It would be an understatement to say that the past year has presented a lot of logistical challenges for employees and users of the Rochester Public Library.
The library, directly across the street from the Mayo Civic Center at the corner of Third Avenue and Second Street Southeast, has been hemmed in by sanitary and storm sewer projects. Those projects, which began last spring, have made it a challenge to simply walk to the building, let alone drive and park nearby.
Those disruptions were predictable. What happened Sept. 22 was not.
That's the day a water softener malfunctioned, sending thousands of gallons of water throughout the library's third, second and first floors, as well as into the basement. The library's auditorium, meeting areas and staff areas were heavily damaged, and the repair costs (not including losses/damage to library materials) were more than $200,000.
The library closed entirely for three full days after the accident – yet for thousands of library patrons, this disaster had little to no impact on how they use the library. Those same patrons also are largely immune to the parking woes created by the city's ongoing sewer projects.
These patrons don't have to drive or park. They don't have to return books and other materials that they check out. They don't have to set foot in the library at all.
They use the library from the comforts of their own home. Or while riding a city bus. Or while relaxing at the family cabin.
The national Public Library Association, along with digital vendor OverDrive, recently chose the Rochester Public Library to receive its Libraries Transform Award. The award recognizes RPL's efforts to encourage patrons to embrace the use of digital materials, and compared to similar communities nationwide, Rochester has the highest number of digital checkouts.
We can see why. Rochester is a tech-savvy community, and once you've started borrowing materials digitally, it's tough to go back.
If you have yet to take the plunge, consider the benefits.
No robocalls from the library system, telling you that you have overdue items – the e-book you checked out a month ago will return itself automatically if you don't renew.
No going to the library to pick up items you've put on hold. When they are available, you get them.
Have you hit that age when you prefer large-print books? Well, on your phone or tablet, you control the font size, so every book can be easy on your eyes.
Don't have a library card? No problem. Go to the library's website and apply for an Instant Digital Card. All you need is your cell phone number to begin the signup process
Don't live in Rochester? Again, not to worry. Anyone in the Southeastern Libraries Cooperating (SELCO) system can access RPL's digital holdings. Rochester was just the second library in the nation to implement such a shared system.
The digital library never closes. Not on holidays. Not on weekends. Not even amid a coronavirus pandemic.
Readers appreciate this level of convenience. Kim Edson, head of reader services at RPL, said that Rochester's library was the first in Minnesota to begin using OverDrive to allow digital checkouts, and usage has grown exponentially as people became familiar with the technology.
"Since the beginning in 2005, we have had 350,120 unique users of our digital collection," Edson said Tuesday. "In the early days, it was pretty common for us to get about 200 new users per month. Currently, we're up to about 6,000 new users each month."
In the past four years, digital circulation at RPL has increased more than 200 percent.
Make no mistake — the future of public libraries will not be built upon stacks of dusty books. While there will always be a place for the printed word, the library of tomorrow will consist largely of data, which is less expensive to buy, store and maintain. To reach that point, the primary challenge for library systems will be getting people to try something new.
Rochester is ahead of the curve. We commend the Rochester Public Library for not only being an early adopter, but for helping its users embrace this new technology.