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Traffic in the stacks

As economy turns down, library usage increases

As economy turns down, library usage increases

February 01, 2009|By JULIE E. GREENE

When the only copy of Gladys Taber's out-of-print "Another Path" that Hagerstown resident Carol Bannon could find cost $70, she turned to her local public library.

"Books can be expensive. Hardcovers can be $20 or above," Bannon says.

Bannon isn't a new library patron, but she has been visiting more often during the past year. Not just for hard-to-find items, but also because her 8-year-old son Josh's interest in reading has picked up.

Lots of things are expensive these days, but the library is a free resource, Bannon says.

Historically, when times get tough usage of libraries goes up, say Mary Baykan, library director for Washington County Free Library system, and Pamela Coyle, director of Martinsburg-Berkeley County (W.Va.) Public Libraries.

And patrons aren't just coming for escapism.

During a 10-day period around the beginning of the year, more than 60 people voluntarily told the reference librarians at the downtown Hagerstown library that they were there seeking help looking for a job, Baykan says.

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Of course, with public monies funding public libraries, tough times also can mean cutbacks.

"It's frustrating for libraries facing cuts or that have had cuts to see the overwhelming needs our community has and our citizens have for bread and butter issues. ... It's a two-edged sword," Baykan says.

Usage up

According to a 2008 poll, 76 percent of Americans visited their local public library within the past year, compared with 65.7 percent in 2006, according to the American Library Association's Web site.

At Washington County Free Library, library visits were up every month in 2008, compared with 2007, except for October. Circulation of materials was up every month except for August, according to Patricia Wishard, program librarian and spokeswoman for the Washington County library system.

The number of new library cards in 2008 was 21,029, up 66.5 percent from 2007, according to Wishard. The increase reflects many new users at the new Boonsboro and Smithsburg libraries, says Kathleen O'Connell, assistant director for the Washington County library system.

Total circulation of materials at Berkeley County libraries increased 11.6 percent in 2008 with jumps more than 20 percent or more at the Hedgesville and Marlowe branches, Coyle says.

With gas prices high last year, many patrons chose to go to their closest branch rather than visit the downtown Martinsburg library, Coyle says.

Coyle says it's helped that the library system has been able to fill requests, usually within a week, for books the system didn't own. That effort was stepped up around November as more patrons requested books from the libraries because they didn't want to pay for them.

It's not just best-sellers, but books about how to fix the house or car, Coyle says.

Usage of the computers at the downtown Martinsburg library also is up as many people are telling library officials they cannot afford Internet access or long-distance calling, she says. More companies also are requesting people to apply online for jobs, Coyle says.

Baykan says she's hearing similar things from her patrons. People are cutting back expenses by not buying books, going to movies or renting DVDs, so they're coming into the library for those escapes.

"People are coming in for economically driven reasons, but people are also emotionally and psychologically under a great deal of stress," Baykan says.

It's like the saying, "If my neighbor is out of work it's a recession. If I'm out of work, it's a depression," she says. "They're being bombarded by bad news on a daily basis."

The other edge of the sword

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed budget calls for a 10 percent cut in state aid for libraries, O'Connell says.

That might mean fewer new materials, but library officials are not looking at cutting hours, O'Connell says.

A cut of more than $100,000 from the Berkeley County Commission and Berkeley County Board of Education last year resulted in some evening hours being cut starting last July, Coyle says. Some programming was cut and maintenance delayed, but not materials as library officials predicted increased demand with the recession. Construction on a new $1.2 million Hedgesville library will probably be delayed another year or so as fundraising efforts have been slowed because of the economy, Coyle says.

Meanwhile, Coyle and other Tri-State-area librarians wait to see what other budget cuts might come their way.

Pennsylvania has already cut its January state aid payment by almost 1 percent, but the greater concern is if cuts get as deep as they did in 2003 when the state reduced aid by half, says Bernice Crouse, executive director for the Franklin County Library System.

"If they would do that again, that would cause us a serious problem," she says. In 2003, the result was cutting staff, hours, and new materials, including new books and periodical subscriptions.

"They could expect something like that again," Crouse says. One of the first things to go would be some of the online databases. Databases include help with learning languages, genealogy research, test preparation such as the SAT, financial aid resources, and job search and career planning tools.

"Unless there's a dramatic economic change for the better between now and the budget for the state (the governor's proposed budget is expected in February), I can't imagine we're not going to experience additional cuts from the state because they have to be fiscally responsible," Crouse says.

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