Nona Nangalama checked out a dozen books from the San Francisco Public Library this week, saying that in better economic times, she would have gone to Borders to shop for the items.
The San Francisco resident and unemployed mother of two is using public libraries even more in these tough times. She is checking out books instead of buying them, and using the Main Library's job and career center to begin her search for employment.
"I live right near the Borders South of Market, so that would be easy for me to go there," Nangalama said, holding 12 books on mastering algebra and geometry that she had checked out for her daughters. "You come here and get advice, guidance and books - all for free."
As the economy slides into a recession and families are cutting back on expenses big and small, libraries in the Bay Area and beyond are experiencing a big increase in membership and circulation.
But as demand rises, libraries are also seeing a squeeze in funding. Libraries rely on property taxes, and city coffers everywhere have been hit by the bad economy. Library officials from San Mateo to Marin County are beginning to look at ways to cut costs without reducing services.
"We're trying to be conservative looking at the next fiscal year," said Martin Gomez, director of library services for San Mateo County, which has 12 libraries in 11 cities. "All of our numbers, in terms of visits and circulation at branch libraries, are up by around 5 percent. But real estate drives our revenue, and property taxes are down. We're not looking at layoffs or reduced hours of operation, but we know the economy is going to take a while to bounce back."
San Francisco's public libraries have seen a 27 percent increase since July in the number of people seeking library cards, and a 12 percent increase over the same period in the number of materials checked out. That amounts to 32,000 cards issued and 3.8 million books, CDs and DVDs checked out.
"We are seeing a significant increase in folks coming into the library to access our computers, to visit our job and career centers, and find information on government aid and look up credit ratings on financial institutions," said Luis Herrera, city librarian for San Francisco, which has 27 branch libraries and the Main Library at the Civic Center.
"When the economy is down, library use is up," he said.
More library cards
More Americans have library cards than at any time since 1990, according to the American Library Association.
"Across the country, in every kind of neighborhood and community, library use, by various measures, is up," said Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association, which has 66,000 members and promotes libraries and librarianship. "At this point, we have an entire population affected by the recession. People are discovering they can save money by using libraries, and they can develop their knowledge and seek employment."
Rettig said the 2 billion items checked out from U.S. libraries this year is 10 percent more than during the economic downturn in 2001. But books, DVDs and other material are only part of the story, he said.
"In 73 percent of U.S. communities, the only place a person can get free Internet access is libraries," Rettig said. "Libraries in areas hit hard by factory closings are playing an especially important role in the economic recovery. Most job applications are now submitted online."
Rettig noted that a number of cities, including San Diego, Philadelphia, Trenton, N.J., and Mesa, Ariz., are looking at closing branch libraries. "Public libraries are facing the most severe cutbacks in decades," Rettig said.
He said the American Library Association will submit a proposal to Congress early in the new year seeking $100 million in stimulus funding. The funds would go to enhance services and materials; extend hours of operation; and offer more classes and workshops focused on financial literacy, housing counseling and small business development. He also hopes a portion of the funds would go to renovating and upgrading facilities.
San Francisco's Herrera said the city's funding for libraries is holding steady.
"We have support through a set-aside in the city's general fund and property taxes," he said. "But we are going to be very prudent in how we approach spending. San Francisco is really committed to providing library services for free." In fact, Herrera said, San Francisco has been increasing hours and services. In November, seven of the 27 branches opened for an additional day each week. Four libraries are under renovation. The number of public computers at libraries has increased by 48 percent in the last two years.
Susan Cohen, a librarian for 15 years who now runs the job and career center on the fourth floor of the Main Library, is seeing more people come in asking for help with resumes and job searches. She said applications for most jobs - from dishwashers to civil service positions - are submitted online.
She has worked in recent months to increase the number of books on how to find a job, start a small business or change careers.
Standing next to stacks of job-related books, with titles including "Jobs Directory," "Resume Book," "Your Next Move" and "Hire Me, Inc.," Cohen said she's doing what she can to help those who are struggling.
"I chose this job because I thought I could be useful," Cohen said. "It's as satisfying as it's ever been. But I can feel that times are tougher. There's a nervousness that people have over the economy. I'm happy I'm in this position to be helpful."