Amid recession, libraries boom

Career assistance, inviting atmosphere increase attendance

February 27, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

All the job-hunting and penny-pinching that go on in tough economic times are finding a place amid stacks of classic literature and hefty reference tomes.

Business is booming at the public library.

Branches in the Baltimore region and across the nation are seeing a lot more people file through their doors. They're borrowing books instead of buying. Looking for jobs on the Internet. Polishing their resumes on library computers. Checking out DVDs instead of shelling out at video stores.

Circulation is flat at Howard County's Central Library, but the number of visitors is up an eye-popping 51 percent - suggesting that more people are coming in to surf the Internet or to read newspapers they no longer get at home.

"There's an old hippie phrase: Libraries will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries," said Lynne Bradley, director of government relations for the American Library Association, which began a study this week of library use and its possible link to the economy.

"When times are bad economically, people tend to use the public library more. They'll borrow a book on roof repair instead of hiring someone," said Jim Fish, director of the Baltimore County library system, whose 16 branches had 5.24 million visitors last year, up 100,000 over the previous year.

The surge in library visitors isn't all about the ailing economy, Fish and other library officials say.

In recent years, libraries have tried to transform themselves from dusty book warehouses to hip community hangouts. With cushy chairs and cappuccino machines, live music and children's programs, best-sellers and movie rentals, libraries are striving to be more entertaining, inviting and relevant.

During economic downturns, that means offering job-search classes, computer training and resume-writing workshops. Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library provides all of that, and stocks sample entrance exams of the city Police Department and other employers.

More than 12,000 people have graduated from the Pratt's free Microsoft Word and Excel classes since they began in 1999, said Mona Rock, director of communications for the library. She said interest in the classes increased as the economy soured.

"People are using libraries in different ways," Rock said. "People come in, of course, to borrow books, but people are also using it to change their lives."

Nearly 735,000 people passed through the doors of the Pratt's central library, 21 branches and a Port Discovery outpost in the six months that ended in December, an increase of about 7 percent over the same period a year earlier, Rock said.

Attendance spikes of that size and larger are common knowledge at the American Library Association, which represents 64,000 libraries.

Association officials decided to study attendance and circulation figures at the nation's 25 largest library systems to see if they could confirm a connection to the recession, said Larra Clark, a spokeswoman at the organization's Chicago headquarters. For now, she said, the link is just anecdotal. The study is expected to take at least several weeks.

"We have been hearing increasingly from people, and we said, `I wonder how we could prove it.' Everything I've been hearing on an individual basis is, `It's up 10 percent in one neighborhood, 12 percent in another neighborhood.' I think it was in Rochester, it was the highest in 10 years," Clark said.

Like a day trader weighing whether to buy or sell, librarians gamble a bit when they choose programs and resources. Fluctuations in the economy and other factors can complicate that guessing game, librarians say.

The Howard County Library was about to drop a poorly attended job-search class when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shook the nation. The library decided to keep the class, and it has been full ever since, said Valerie J. Gross, Howard's library director.

"In economic downturns, more people rely on the free services of the public library," she said. "We get a lot of people with questions, people doing research on career options, people using our computers to [make] their resumes current. They come in to look through the career opportunities in the newspaper and search the Internet here."

Count Janice Mason among them.

The 38-year-old Bowie resident hadn't spent much time in a library since high school. But she started visiting branches in Laurel and Savage after she was laid off in November from her job supervising group homes for mentally disabled adults.

Now Mason goes to the library once or twice a week. Still hunting for work, she uses library computers mostly to search Internet job sites and adjust her resume.

But she has also stumbled on some interesting books - mostly nonfiction work about relationships - that she has read for pleasure.

"I've started to read a lot," she said. "I was never a big reader. Just being here exposes you to something, just broadens your horizons."

Knowing she'd have some time to kill before a job interview in Columbia yesterday, Mason said, she immediately thought, "Let me find out where the local library is."

Until recently, she said, it never would have occurred to her to hang out in a library.

She found Howard's Central Library and happily tapped away at one of 70 computers, the sound of a cappuccino machine whooshing softly in the background.

"I'm just finding the library again, " she said. "It's comfortable. It's quiet. The people are friendly. It's a nice place to be."

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