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Checking Out The Library

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Public Library Patronage Rises In Slow Economy

By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

In the midst of our current economic recession no business seems immune.

Factories are cutting production, companies are laying off workers and executives who once clung to golden parachutes like security blankets are finding themselves with their hands out.

But there’s one business that’s thriving in this economy and its one, you might say, that’s doing it by the book.

It’s the public library.

According to a recent Harris Poll, 68 percent of Americans own library cards; that’s the highest number since the National Library Association (NLA) began keeping statistics in 1990. The NLA estimates Americans checked out more than 2 billion books last year.

In Iowa, library card holders are up 22 percent since 1998, creeping toward 2 million in the state. An Iowa Library Association study completed last December saw library visits rise 7 percent and check outs up 6 percent.

Denise Crawford, director of the Glenwood Public Library, has seen a steady rise in library usage in the last six months. Crawford sees the biggest spike in book check outs, but internet use, reference questions and library traffic are all up.

Crawford points to the recession as a clear stimulus for libraries. She’s seen a steady increase in internet users looking for jobs online and printing resumes.

“It’s kind of a proven fact over the years, historically in tough economic times, libraries are used more,” Crawford said. “Maybe people let their Internet access go and come here to use it. It’s something they can trim (from their budget).”

Public libraries have always served a community need. The NLA estimates public libraries cost taxpayers about $30 a year - or about the cost of a hardcover book and a venti latte. As families fight the recession they increasingly turn to their libraries for media that is the first to be trimmed from budgets: Internet, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, books and movie rentals.

“I think a lot of it is economics,” said Terri Elwood, who has served on the Silver City Library Board for five years. “It's a lot cheaper to check out a book or a movie at the library for free than go buy or rent one.

“We have computer access that kids are coming in to use, and plus we have been trying to let the community know we're intending to add on to the library, so that word is spreading that we’re growing.”

The Friends of the Library association has been key, Elwood said, in helping local people discover, or re-discover, the library and its many amenities they have right there in their community. With grants for new books, a Wi-Fi network added last year and a planned children’s center at the library, Elwood sees the Silver City Library only growing.

Donna Schoening, who has worked at the Silver City Library for 11 years, has seen the biggest increase in computer use and movie check-outs. The Silver City Library has more than 300 movie titles and wireless Internet network.

“I think a lot of people that don’t have computers at home are coming to look for jobs on the Internet,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of the traffic that bigger libraries get, but the ones that come in, a lot are using the computers.

Crawford has also seen an increase at the Glenwood Library in a little-known amenity they offer: art prints. Library cardholders can check out art prints to hang in their home or office for four weeks at a time. The cost is free and late charges are handled just like an overdue book.

“It’s very popular for some businesses. If they don't want to purchase something they can change their collection (by checking out a print),” Crawford said.

With circulation, traffic and use up across the state, Crawford isn’t sure how that will affect future public library funding, always a linchpin of economic slashing during budget cuts. One thing is clear, however.

“I don’t see any signs of it slowing down,” she said.