Library Cards Fast Becoming Best Sellers During Recession


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Millions of avid American readers watch their investments plummet due to corporate greed and credit card debt. They worry how to devour those New York Times-acclaimed best sellers on the beaches this summer when income for shopping books must be earmarked for bare necessities – bags of raw almonds and bottles of Charles Shaw at Trader Joe’s.

Wait, the plot thickens when bright children become increasingly antsy. How will parents with shallow pockets keep those little brains stimulated without classics like Little Women and newer ones like Holes?

Take heart, dear readers. The ending might be a bit grim for big chain book stores but the outcome is a happy one for the civic public library, which is seeing a healthy surge in usage during the recession.

Yes, the public library is the free clinic for the hard-hit book worm. It’s a vast resource that has always been around, but not always utilized the same way.

“Our circulation stats have been going up pretty regularly each month, with more check outs of books and DVD’s and more people coming in and registering for cards,” observes Brian Weaver, who works the reference desk at the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library – one of the busiest branches in the city. Requests for library cards went up by 28 percent the last six months of 2008. Overall circulation approached a 15% boost in April of this year.

“One thing that is really noticeable is the people looking for books about job searches, resume writing and how to use computers to get jobs – all areas related to seeking employment,” says Weaver. “And there are waiting lists to use our computers during the middle of the day. It’s reservation-only at that point.”


The same kind of activity has been reported in Boulder, Colo., where circulation of job-search materials was up 14 percent at the beginning of the year. The Boise Public Library has seen a 61 percent hike in new library cards issued and use of the Newark Public Library in New Jersey rose 17 percent.

It’s all part of a national trend, according to a recent report by the Boston Globe, which found that at The Boston Public Library, new library cards are up 32.7 percent from July to November of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007. Visits are up 13 percent, from 1.4 million visits to 1.6 million. Checkouts of books, CDs, and DVDs are up 7.2 percent overall over the last fiscal year.

Naturally, the traffic means more fielding of questions by librarians and clerks, who are serving a growing population of readers hunting collections for both work and pleasure. To better meet their needs, the San Francisco system has expanded its hours at all branches, staying open six to seven days a week and during the evenings.

“We felt people really wanted to be able to go to the library at other times and we studied the demographics and socio-economics of the various branches to make those changes,” explains SF library spokesperson, Michelle Jeffers. She predicts library use will rise further during the summer months when reading programs for kids are offered.


Crowds line up for an opening of the new Portola branch of the San Francisco Public Library

But the irony is that at the same time we are finding refuge in public libraries, some are being threatened with massive cuts and closures due to cash-poor local governments whittling down their budgets.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has faced huge public criticism for deciding to close 11 of 54 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia in what he termed a “midyear revision of epic proportions.”

The San Francisco system is more immune to these hits with many branches prospering from a $106 million bond measure voters overwhelmingly passed in 2000 to upgrade San Francisco’s branch library system. In addition,  in November 2007, the voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition D authorizing additional funding to improve the branches.

As a goodwill gesture, those libraries have offered the public a two-week amnesty period in which fines were waived on overdue materials.

“We recognize our patrons are strapped and we are trying to find a way to make sure everyone who wants to use the library can use it,” explains Jeffers. “It’s a trade-off because we lose the fines but we expect to get back four times as many returned items as normal in that time period.”

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Epilogue: I’m just praying the Tarzana branch of the L.A. Public Library considers doing the same amnesty program. I checked out The History of Petroleum for a book report forty years ago and I’m sure the fines have well exceeded the balance in my bank account.

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.