Free for all: Public libraries are a treasure trove, especially during economic tough times
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 2, 2009 - When economic times get tough, the wise get going -- to the public library, that is. As the economy squeezes many St. Louisans' budgets, area libraries are reporting increases in usage: More people are visiting and more material is circulating.
The jump in circulation at the St. Louis County Library District's 21 facilities has been dramatic. "We're seeing between a 10 and 20 percent increase at some branches," spokeswoman Jennifer McBride says.
While counters measure library visits, the technology varies from branch to branch and may be unreliable, McBride said. New branches use RFID, a radio frequency identification system. "That's the higher tech means of counting people," she said. "Older branches have a less sophisticated door count mechanism."
But circulation figures are black and white, and they're up in all areas of the county, McBride said. For example, the Grand Glaize branch in West County saw an almost 10 percent increase in November, she said.
The Eureka Hills branch on the western edge of the district has experienced a giant leap in circulation.
"We're just crazy busy all the time. I think we're up 19 percent or so since November," Emily Althoff, the branch manager, said. "It's been going up for probably a year and a half now."
Part of the increase may stem from the library's new management that has made the facility friendlier, Althoff said.
But she also thinks the tough economy is bringing people in. "We're a free resource. We've got DVDs, we've got lots of good books and we're free," she said. "People don't have as much money for leisure activities, and they have found us."
The district's only branch in a strip mall, Eureka Hills is on the same frontage road as Six Flags amusement park, Althoff said. She laughingly notes that the library is sandwiched between a farm implement store and "a hair place." When patrons ask how to find the library, Althoff tells them to "take a left at Dickey Bub's," the implement store.
While the tiny branch has only four computers, "they're pretty consistently used," Althoff said. "I've seen a lot more resume-building, job searching lately on those computers."
Despite its size, the branch has much to offer, she said. "We've got tons of DVDs that go out constantly. We've got a pretty decent-sized bestseller collection -- books that have come out in the last six months or so. Those go out constantly.
"We used to be a shoe store," she said. "We're so small I only keep things that circulate. If they don't circulate, I send them somewhere else."
The branch has a very successful story-time program for children "even though we don't have a room to put them in," Althoff said. "We just kind sit them all in the middle of the floor." The event is so popular, a second weekly session was added.
On Jan. 23 the branch will hold an after-hours teen gaming event, the fifth the branch has offered. "They're pretty well attended," Althoff said. "We're always just trying to think of more interesting things that people would like."
Tim Wadham, the county district's assistant director for Youth and Community Services, said, agrees that library use is up.
"Conventional wisdom says that when the economy is down, library use increases, that people use the library to get things that they may have paid for in the past," he said. "Rather than buying the book, they're going to check it out. The best evidence is simply anecdotal, but it certainly seems that's the case."
Wadham pointed to attendance at the district's computer-training classes. In October 2007, some 1,606 patrons attended the classes. In October '08, "when the crisis was really hitting," it was 1,833, he said.
District-wide computer usage in November increased 10 percent from November 2007, McBride said.
It's no surprise that computer usage surges during economic downturns, Wadham said.
"In these economic times, computer classes are a great resource for people who are looking to improve their skills if they need to look for another job. It's certainly a great place to look for a job with the Internet access and books and other information we can provide as people are looking for that new job or training for a new career."
The district's popular series of career seminars led by Al Hauser, job developer and business liaison for St. Louis Community College, is slated for February and continues through December, McBride said. "We've booked him for the whole year," she said.
Topics Hauser covers include how to get your resume in order, online job searching and applications and interview tips.
At the St. Louis Public Library "overall usage is up -- definitely," Gerald Brooks, the library's marketing and public relations director, said. "Because of the way our economy has been -- it's so topsy turvey -- we find more people are using the library. But we were surprised to see that our biggest jump in usage is among seniors."
With its Central Library downtown and 16 branches, the St. Louis Public Library sees almost 3 million users a year. Usage by seniors alone is up 7 percent, Brooks said.
"With a library card, you have free access to an entire world of knowledge -- whether that's the newest technology, the latest movies, the hottest music or the greatest books," he said.
"We like to say we have thousands of CDs from the Isley Brothers to the Jonas Brothers, from Wayne Newton to Little Wayne, from Big Country to No Country for Old Men and from Kung Fu to Kung Fu Panda."
He noted that libraries are paid for by taxes so their services are free.
"The citizens of St. Louis have been very good to our library system," Brooks said. "We try to make sure they're repaid them in a very good way. They can pretty much get everything they need right here."
Usage of the city libraries' hundreds of computers is also up. "We have three (computer) labs, and believe me, they stay full," he said.
The city library also offers a variety of classes on subjects ranging from computer training and crafts to GED and English as a second language. "We have a job and career center at our central library where you can get information about resume preparation and job-related material," Brooks said. Kids in kindergarten through grade 12 can even get help with their homework from the library's "Homework Helpers," he said.
City libraries also offer a story hour for young children, and six branches have teen lounges, "sections just for teens to come in, hang out and communicate with each other," Brooks said.
Children can check out "Book Boxes," boxes filled with books, games, puzzles and other fun things to do. "We also have toys for ages 1-6 that patrons can check out," Brooks said. "In a time when folks can't afford to do these things, we've got it right here for you."
With a new state-of-the-art service at the St. Louis Public Library called GetItNow, users can download any of hundreds of documentaries and classic films on video and audio books without even driving to the library.
GetItNow allows users to enjoy downloadable videos and audio books on their home computer, PocketPC, Smartphone, or other DRM-compatible mobile device.
"You can just go online and click the GetItNow link of the library section," Gerald Brooks, a spokesman for the library, said. "Within minutes you'll be viewing the video of your choice or listening to a new best seller," Brooks said. "It's 24/7."
Area residents don't have to live or work in the city to use the St. Louis Public Library. It has reciprocal agreements with the St. Louis County Library District, the St. Charles City-County Public Library and libraries in nine area municipalities that allow residents with cards from one to use all of the systems.
Kathie Sutin is a freelance journalist.