NEWPORT, Maine— You don’t have a computer but just lost your job. Where do you go to post your resume or job-search online? The public library.
The economy has prompted you to cut back excess spending. Where do you get the latest movies and all the books you want to read for free? The public library.
You can’t really afford an expensive night out with friends. Where can you gather for free workshops, seminars and discussion groups? The public library.
As expendable income in people’s pockets shrinks, Maine libraries are bracing for an expected 30 percent increase in patronage in 2009 because of the economy.
“Who doesn’t want to save on the next best-seller’s purchase price, magazine subscriptions or movie rental?” Donna Rasche, Brewer Public Library director, asked last week.
“Libraries are becoming more and more about place, and less and less about storage and retrieval,’” said Rich Boulet, director of the Blue Hill Library and past president of the Maine Library Association. “It’s a bit of a conundrum. When the economy is at its worst, libraries suffer early on in terms of funding. And just when they have less resources, the demand for services increases. Libraries have become really good at doing more with less.”
Sonja Plummer-Morgan, head librarian at the Mark & Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle, said use tends to follow economics and she already is seeing a huge increase in traffic.
“Our patrons are looking online and in newspapers for jobs, searching for housing, using computers, and the number of materials checked out or used in-house is rising,” she said. “It wouldn’t surprise any of us if patrons were to use the library as a place to keep warm as fuel costs outpace people’s ability to pay. Libraries are, after all, a community ‘commons.’”
Plummer-Morgan said rural libraries in particular are well-positioned to help mitigate isolation by providing places for patrons to socialize and connect with other people.
“Public libraries have always been a great way to apply economies of scale. Why buy a book when you can check it out, read and return it for someone else to read? And libraries are not just about books anymore,” Charlene Churchill, director of the Ellsworth Public Library, said last week.
“We have had people use various library computer resources for online courses, to run their business, to write resumes and cover letters. Our newspapers and magazines are getting much in-library use as people figure out ways to economize. I encountered a person last week who had been looking at help-wanted ads and needed directions to one of the businesses to apply for a job,” she said.
Kathy Molloy, director of the Orono Public Library, said she is seeing a dramatic increase in use. “Besides all the free stuff, libraries help in tough times by providing resources such as do-it-yourself information, including how to cut home energy costs, job hunting information, freelance, home business and entrepreneur guide books, as well as information on the new green-collar jobs and other green economy opportunities.”
At the Cary Library in Houlton, librarian Linda Faucher reported that some patrons have given up their Internet service to save money and are using the library’s free service.
Lyn Smith, head librarian at Pittsfield Public Library, said computers are an integral and important aspect of the library.
“People come here with their own notebook computers to use our fast wireless connection,” she said. “Yesterday a man used his webcam and our wireless connection to talk to his parents in Colombia. People going back to school are using distance education. They use our computers to complete and submit homework assign-ments. The library staff proctor exams for students. I am also seeing a definite increase in people using the computers for preparing resumes and submitting job applications. For many, this is a first introduction to using computers. The library staff takes time to teach them basic computer skills.”
The Maine State Library Web site has a calculator that allows a patron to determine the actual value of a library’s services. For example, if in the course of a month you take out four books, 10 children’s books, five movies and use the library computers for six hours, that’s a value of $434, services cardholders receive for free.
If you read a newspaper at the library every day during that same month to look for a job, that value jumps to more than $500.
Boulet plugged in the circulation figures for the Blue Hill library recently and discovered that for the $60,000 in funding the town provides, the library delivers a $2.4 million return. “Astounding, isn’t it?” he said.
“People who have used the library all along know the value of borrowing items rather than purchasing books at a bookstore or renting movies,” Smith said. “But more people are catching on. A couple of fathers who brought their young children to a program were amazed at the selection of videos available at the library, and a recent evening program attracted 70 children and their parents as families are looking for low-cost and local fun and educational activities.”
Churchill has seen an 11 percent increase in items checked out this year at Ellsworth library and expects that will increase greatly in 2009. She said attendance at library functions and events is sky-high. At a recent concert by the Acadia Handbell Choir, 115 people of all ages attended, some of whom never had been in the library before.
Looking ahead, Churchill said it would become increasingly important for patrons to advocate for their library.
“It is important for library users to let their elected officials on the local, state and national levels know that they want public library services maintained even in tough economic times,” Churchill said. “Libraries are sometimes viewed as expendable when money gets tight, but the exact opposite is true.”
“Libraries are never overfunded,” said Elizabeth Pohl of the Lithgow Library in Augusta. “It is a challenge since we see the country’s and state’s economic problems filtering down to the local level. We are definitely feeling the pressure.”
The link for the Maine State Library service-value calculator is http://www.maine.gov/msl/services/calculator.htm.