Shakopee confronts county over using library for dental and other services

Remember when libraries were just libraries? A place you could go to check out books, periodicals and find a quiet place to read? With the virtual information age threatening their existence, libraries have scrambled to find new ways to remain relevant enough to justify keeping the doors open at taxpayer expense.

But the suburb of Shakopee has drawn the line over the latest wrinkle at the city-owned but Scott County-operated local library, where dental services and free legal clinics have suddenly become available.

It started last summer, when the county began using part of the library to inform walk-ins of their eligibility for social services through a Family Resource Center. When city officials found out about the changes, however, it led to a showdown over the library’s core purpose, according to the Star Tribune.

But city leaders are objecting that infusion of social service offerings, including signing up children for preschool screenings and holding information sessions on mental health services, plus a separate program that brings a children’s dental clinic to the library. Some City Council members, who note that the city owns and maintains the building, want to revisit a decades-old agreement governing library operations with the county, which staffs and runs the library

The city takes issue with any library activities that aren’t “traditional library services,” said Bill Reynolds, city administrator.

“The city provides the library for library services, not human services,” Reynolds said in an e-mail. “The county has other buildings it can use for human services. This is a library.”

Scott County recently quintupled FRC’s office hours at the library to 20 hours a week. Representatives insist the setting offers a more welcoming environment to some potential clients than regular county government service centers, despite strong objections on the part of some elected officials.

City Council Member Jay Whiting said the county’s use of the library for human services “happened out of the blue.”

“I would rather see a library used to teach kids how to read,” he said. “I just don’t understand why they have to take the library’s space.”

Vermillion said libraries are changing and the expansion of uses is part of that.

“They have become gathering spaces,” she said.

Shakopee officials claim the county never informed or asked them about the dramatic changes. Using a library for dental appointments appears to have hit a particularly raw nerve.

Several council members mentioned one service performed at the library as problematic – dental work done in a meeting room.

Vermillion said the monthly dental screenings by the nonprofit Children’s Dental Services are through the public health department, not the Family Resource Center.

[Shakopee city administrator Bill] Reynolds said it’s irrelevant which county department sponsors the dental cleanings. The library “was never conceived as a place to conduct dental services,” he said.

The standoff has led Shakopee to revisit the terms of its deal with Scott County to give the Twin Cities suburb the final say over the library’s usage. But it could be challenging to put in writing exactly what a library does in this day and age.

Reynolds said he’s drafting a new agreement that the City Council will present to Scott County that will “limit the use of the city building to library services,” he said. Any use not specified in the agreement would require approval from the council.

Vermillion said the city and county are working to define “library services.”

“I think the county and city, just like multiple things that we work on, we have to work through that understanding,” she said.