Business Brisk at Area Libraries

Hannah Lee, 4, grabs a book during a visit to the Germantown library with her dad, Samson Lee, and sleeping 1-year-old sister, Jenna.
Hannah Lee, 4, grabs a book during a visit to the Germantown library with her dad, Samson Lee, and sleeping 1-year-old sister, Jenna. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009

Nearly every study table is full with patrons sipping lattes and surfing the Web. Teens are curled up in easy chairs. In a worried knot by the doorway, job seekers gather around a sign-up station for the Internet, waiting for their turn.

Before the Germantown library opened in 2007, there was hardly any "downtown" to speak of in the Montgomery County community, where houses and strip malls grew before anything else. Now it's an important civic anchor, a main street where none existed, and the busiest library in the county.

In the past few months, it has become even busier. The library, like most in the Washington area, has had a rising tide of users as patrons look for free computer access, DVD loans and activities for children during the recession. Circulation in the last six months of the year rose as much as 23 percent in libraries around the region, records show.

The influx comes just as county managers are preparing budgets for the coming fiscal year in a time of huge shortfalls. Libraries, like other services, face drastic cuts that could mean reducing staff and hours or even shuttering branches.

"It's a cruel irony that use is going up and budget cuts are occurring simultaneously," said Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association and a librarian at the University of Richmond. "What I think doesn't get enough recognition is the role libraries play in the economic vitality and development of a community."

Cultural soothsayers once thought libraries would become obsolete in the Internet age. Not so. They have modernized, digitized, virtualized.

Patrons can bring their own beverages; Arlington County hopes to add a cafe in one of its branches. They can access databases, read Chinese newspapers or the latest graphic teen novel. Users have more and more access from home; they can text in reference questions to a Fairfax County librarian, for example, or listen to podcasts. Fairfax card holders can read an e-book online. Librarians are trying to tailor services to community needs, hoping to add more babysitting certification classes in Silver Spring or résumé-writing workshops in Prince George's County.

More than 68 percent of American adults now have a library card, the highest number since the ALA began tracking the numbers in 1990.

"One thing I hear quite frequently is 'Gee, it's cheaper to come here than Borders,' " said Nancy Savas, the library manager at Germantown. "It makes me laugh, because we've always been here."

The Searchers

The Germantown library cost $19 million to build three years ago, a civic project emblematic of flush times that would be hard to build today. It has soaring glass windows and a rotunda with a spiral staircase that is supposed to evoke a silo -- and memories of the county's agricultural past, the dairy farms now plowed under. It has the latest bestsellers, 32 computers and Chinese- and Spanish-speaking staff, a necessity in a community where a third of the population is foreign-born.

"You feel like you're almost in a little bit of a cathedral," said Galen Yoder, 63, a Chevy Chase resident who visited the library recently. "The only thing missing is stained glass."

Into the cathedral the seekers come. One middle-aged mom at the information desk was looking for a DVD of a self-help tome, "The Secret," popularized by Oprah Winfrey two years ago. "I'm trying to find myself, the meaning of life, my existence," she whispered.

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