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Business Brisk at Area Libraries
In Bad Times, Free Resources Are a Hot Commodity

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.

Lately, and more painfully, the library has been populated by job seekers. They spread their résumés on tables and visit job search Web sites. Some are even trying to navigate the computer for the first time -- learning how to use a mouse or setting up an e-mail account -- to apply at McDonald's or Target.

Others appear at the library on Friday afternoons, teary, having just been laid off, needing the computers to figure out their unemployment insurance.

"Three o'clock on Friday is an interesting time to be at the library," Savas said, a little ruefully.

Some find a sense of community with their fellow sufferers. Some not.

"It depresses me. I don't know," said Abby Glackin, 39, a Germantown resident who has been unemployed since October and is looking for secretarial work. "I see people filling out questionnaires on Monster.com. I guess there are so many of us who are unemployed that it's more disheartening to me than it is anything else."

Victoria Grant, 22, a mother of two who lost her job in retail four months ago, logged on to the computer recently to look for a new position.

She vowed she would get one by Feb. 1 so she and her fiance, Curtis, a chef, could get back to planning their wedding. It doesn't seem right to get married while she's unemployed, she said. She told him the wedding had to wait.

"You can't have a marriage without some sort of stability," she said. "It's really bad out there. . . . Trust me, I know so many people looking for a job, it's not even funny."

Instead of buckling down, though, she was dreamily perusing wedding sites. There's her dress at David's Bridal -- a satin one with a flouncy skirt and black sash for $449.

"Oh, one day," she said, scrolling. "It's the most beautiful thing ever. I love it."

Later, she jubilantly reports that she has been hired as a cashier at Staples.

The nuptials are back on.

The Traffic Jams

Across the country, Internet use has skyrocketed at libraries because so many people are out of work or canceling home service to save money. At Germantown, despite its 32 Internet-accessible computers, wait times can stretch over an hour. Even the free Wi-Fi system has been strained and crashes occasionally, Savas said.

Chris Termini, 41, a postal worker from Germantown, disconnected his Internet and cable about a year ago.

"I'm just trying to make ends meet," he said.

He visits the library a few times a week to check his e-mail and see the latest links or jokes his friends have sent. He used to be able to log on with no problem. Now he sometimes waits an hour. On Monday or Tuesday, he often has to leave for work before his turn comes up.

Other libraries are also seeing cyberspace traffic jams. Internet use was up 41 percent at all branches in December, officials said. In Loudoun County, Wi-Fi use has increased 33 percent.

At the Spauldings Library in District Heights, librarian Kelley Perkins has seen tempers fray at the Internet queues when job seekers have to wait their turn behind youngsters perusing MySpace or watching videos on YouTube.

"People are getting a little short with each other," Perkins said. "What we hear most frequently is, 'Why are those kids on the computers when I have real work to do?' "

The Kids

Germantown's Discovery Center -- a quiet place with dollhouses, puzzles and other toys -- is booked a month in advance. A second one is opening this month. On Saturdays, the diverse population turns the room into a mini-United Nations, with parents crouched in tiny chairs reading with their kids in a dozen languages and admonishing them not to bang the fish tank.

Even so, the story time for toddlers that used to draw 20 or so children now commands three times as many, Savas said, as parents tightening their wallets search for cheap entertainment. One day, 172 children showed up.

"I stopped coming because it was insane," said Sondra Jackson, 38, a stay-at-home mother of two from Clarksburg.

Similar programs are popular in other counties where children make up a large percentage of the population, such as Loudoun.

There, online registration for the toddler music class "Rhythm Rhyme and Tune Time" used to reach a fever pitch, not unlike buying tickets for a rock concert, librarians said. Registration would fill up within a minute on the morning it was available.

"We were getting screamed at by angry customers who weren't getting in," said John Huddy, the branch manager for the Ashburn library. "You explain to them it's like a Springsteen concert."

Finally the library instituted a lottery system.

Although the popularity of that music class predates the downturn, participation in all of Loudoun's children's and adult programs is up 24 percent.

"People are discovering what an incredible value their library is in their community," Rettig said. "It's the only institution in American society" offering such accessible learning opportunities to all ages.

Huddy, Savas and other local librarians said the challenge now will be trying to meet demand while bracing for proposed budget cuts that will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Already they are getting creative. Huddy, whose library is short-staffed, actually put a few of the unemployed regulars to work shelving books as volunteers. Alexandria's libraries posted a wish list on Amazon.com, hoping that benefactors might treat them to "Mr. Jefferson's Women" by Jon Kukla for $10.17 or the "Good Dog Massage" DVD for $24.95.

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