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Bemidji Public Library has more than books

The Bemidji Public Library has been a fixture downtown for more than a century.

The library was founded in February 1907. By 1909, the city of Bemidji, the Women's Study Club and the library board had worked together to secure a $15,000 grant from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, and a site overlooking Lake Bemidji was chosen for the building.

The library operated for more than 50 years at the Carnegie Building at Bemidji Avenue and Fifth Street. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and is now the home of the Bemidji Community Arts Center.

In 1961, the library moved a few blocks away to the former post office building at 602 Beltrami Ave. N.W. It remained there for 33 years, becoming part of the Kitchigami Regional Library system in 1970.

A gift of land could have brought about the library's exit from downtown in 1992, when the North County Regional Hospital board offered four acres of land for a new facility.

The Bemidji Area Public Library Foundation instructed the library board to accept the gift unless a downtown site could be located shortly, but the Downtown Development Authority secured the current site at 509 America Ave. N.W.

Technology boost

The most notable changes for the library have been in the area of technology, said Paul Ericsson, branch manager.

"The world outside of us is changing and we're trying to keep up with it," he said.

Ericsson said he suspects the library's free electronic resources are very underutilized, and he would like to see more users become aware of the services available, almost all of which are accessible for home users on the library's Web site. A fast-growing service is the ability to place requests for books online, and patrons can now also do renewals online.

Along with print books, library patrons also frequently check out DVDs and audio books at the library, but they can also download free audio books and e-books. Patrons must sign up at the library and then visit (the link is available on the Bemidji Public Library and Kitchigami Web sites).

Cardholders can also search periodicals online, access databases, watch online videos and much more.

Usage of the library is continually growing, Ericsson said, most of all in public computers.

"I think it seems to expand every time we add computers," he said, adding that the 11 computers are almost always in use. Free wireless access is also available.

Promoting reading

A strong focus on literacy, particularly early literacy, is a cornerstone of the library, which provides programs such as storytime, Lapsit and Fathers Reading Every Day.

"We're addressing issues of early literacy and preparing children for that incredibly important transition to kindergarten," Ericsson said.

"We work collaboratively with a lot of other organizations to address literacy, particularly literacy in children," he said, adding that the library chooses engaging and entertaining activities to promote reading.

"I believe, and many of us believe, that it's a lifelong activity and it should start at birth," Ericsson said.

The library has also added more adult programming, including lecture series and book discussion groups.

"It is a good library," Ericsson said. "I think we're on track."

Still, the library faces challenges as demands exceed resources, he said.

"Right now we're holding steady and doing very well," Ericsson said, but it's hard to predict the future in the current economic climate in which funding is uncertain.

The library board is "planning to plan" for the future, Ericsson said, with a strategic plan in the works.

Kitchigami Regional Library has done a plan that provided valuable information for the Bemidji branch, "but we have unique issues to address with our library building," he said.

For example, the program meeting room does not meet all demands, and space is limited for computers, with room for perhaps three more.

"We will be evaluating our services and prioritizing, analyzing our resources," Ericsson said. "We're trying to look outward and respond to the needs of the community."

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