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With economy down, library use is way up

Mary Scheide doesn't have to look far to see evidence of the struggling economy. She can just step out of her office.

Scheide is head librarian at the Dakota County Library in Farmington. In recent months she's seen use of the facility increase dramatically. Library use in December, measured by the number of books checked out, was up 31 percent over December of 2007. Use in January was up by the same amount over the previous year.

Those are the big numbers, but the increase is more than just a two-month spike. Scheide, who's been in Farmington since July, said library use in 2008 was up 11 percent over 2007.

"Just walking through the library, it's bustling," Scheide said.

There is no hard evidence to tie the increase in library use to the economy, but the anecdotal evidence is strong. Scheide said she's heard from many library users the economy has played a role in their decision to visit more often. And with budgets getting tighter all the time it makes sense that people would borrow a book from the library rather than buy one new. Or that families would borrow a movie from the library, where new releases are a dollar per day and older titles are free, rather from the video store.

Dakota County libraries have also started letting users check out passes that will get as many as four people into the Minnesota Zoo, area museums or a handful of other attractions for no charge.

"When people are looking for family entertainment that's low cost ... it's a great way to put together a weekend," Scheide said. "I think when people start cutting back there's many ways we can help them."

Upcoming computer classes are full, as are the waiting lists for those classes.

Farmington is hardly alone. According to the American Library Association library registration has reached an historic high. A poll released Sept. 22 found 68 percent of Americans have a library card, up 5 percent since 2006 and the highest percentage since the ALA started to measure library card use in 1990. The survey also found in-person library visits are up 10 percent from 2006.

In Dakota County the number of items increased 8.7 percent from 2007 to 2008 and the number of visitors increased between 8 and 9 percent.

"That's pretty much across the board systemwide," said Ross Cogar, Dakota County Libraries' community connection manager. "The only place I would say we had a slowdown was at our Wescott location (in Eagan) and that was because we had a remodel."

Cogar, who's worked in libraries for more than 16 years, said library use usually goes up when the economy struggles. But he was surprised to see how much use has increased.

"That's a significant jump," he said.

Keeping up with all that use is not always easy. It's a lot of work keeping track of the books that go out and getting them back on the shelves when they come in. There are also requests from other libraries or from online users to keep track of.

"The lists keep increasing," Scheide said. "We may have 150 books that we have to pull off our shelves on a given day (to fill requests)."

People aren't just turning to the library for entertainment, though. The library and its eight computer terminals have also become an important resource for people looking for work. Scheide said computer use at the library was up 19 percent in 2008.

Scheide is used to seeing the library's computer terminals occupied in the after-school hours as students come in to do research for school projects. But she's started to see more and more use during the day. When you're cutting your budget, computers and Internet service can be easy places to look.

"Definitely people are coming in, using our computers to look for jobs, type their resumes, setting up e-mail accounts," Scheide said.

Countywide, Internet use was up 25 percent last year.

The computer is becoming an increasingly important tool in the modern job search. Many job listings have moved online, and some companies ask applicants to submit their resumes online. Librarians are available to help job seekers navigate the online process.

"If you haven't applied for a job in the last 20 years, it's a whole different world," Scheide said.

Spreading the word

Scheide isn't taking all this increased use for granted. She and the other librarians are constantly looking for new ways to bring people in. The library hosts regular after-school Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution sessions for teens. There are those computer classes that have proved so popular. And Scheide recently placed an item in the city's economic update pitching the resources the library has for businesses.

Bringing things back to the economy, the library, on Feb. 21 the library will hold a workshop for people concerned about losing their homes.

Cogar said the number of programs offered at county libraries increased 15 percent in 2008 and attendance at those programs was up.

"We don't want to be the best-kept secret in Farmington," Scheide said.