The number of visitors to the Enoch Pratt Free Library increased by 20 percent in a six-month period, prompting library officials to suggest that the Internet is helping boost usage at an institution known for its printed word and paper collections.
"It's been a steady increase, across the boards," said Carla D. Hayden, the library's chief executive. "People are using our Web site to find the treasures we have in here. New digital technologies have opened up the collections to so many more people."
Hayden said the walk-in rate jumped despite budgetary cutbacks and furlough days. Two neighborhood branches, in Edmondson Village and on Reisterstown Road, were also closed for renovation during the six-month period that ended Feb. 28.
About 1.06 million people used the library system in person, according to the Pratt's 2010 Mid-Year Statistical Report. Three neighborhood centers, Southeast Anchor in Highlandtown, Pennsylvania Avenue and Orleans Street, led the branch system in attendance.
Hayden said the library's "aggressive" online presence and use of social media were helping draw more use. She also said the poor economy lured patrons for books and free or low-cost DVD rentals.
She credited snow predictions for causing users to stock up on books and other materials. "One woman came in the Friday before the first snow in February and checked out the entire 'War and Peace' on audio books," she said. "Another took out the full 'Sopranos' series."
She credited a program of "very attractive new window displays" at the Central Pratt on Cathedral Street with helping boost attendance at authors' lectures and other public programs.
Hayden said her staff also uses Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare and MySpace to attract younger, computer-savvy patrons. Pratt's computer training sessions have been popular for older patrons and helped job seekers, she said.
"I'm also seeing many more young professionals in here," she said. "People like our social inclusiveness mixed in with a campus atmosphere."
She said the library's wireless Internet access has been a draw. She is looking into lending laptop computers and may set out tables and chairs along Cathedral Street so library users can read, surf the Web and have a coffee outdoors in the summer.
"I think Baltimore has become more safe, and people are coming out and really enjoying the city," Hayden said. "People are taking advantage and expressing an appreciation for the resources that are available."
There was also a 9 percent rise in visits to the Pratt's Web site, www.prattlibrary.org, and the majority of these users, 78 percent, were from outside the library.
There was a 6 percent increase in students attending computer classes at the Pratt Center for Technology Training and satellite computer labs at the Northwood branch, Pennsylvania Avenue branch and Southeast Anchor Library.
There was also a 28 percent increase in the number of visits to the Pratt's online catalog.