Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Books fly off shelves as library use soars

Phenomenon may be a chapter in story of nation’s economy

By Hillary Borrud / The Bulletin
Published: January 08. 2009 4:00AM PST
Judith Ellis, 69, of Bend, pulls a book off a top shelf while browsing at the Bend Public Library on Wednesday. Ellis said the parking lot was full, an indication that the library was busy.

People are flocking to Deschutes County libraries, and officials say the slumping economy may be bringing them business. From July through November, patrons checked out about 10 percent more books and other items compared with the same period last year.

On Wednesday, the Bend Public Library was already bustling 15 minutes after it opened. Families gathered for story time in the children’s section, and on the second floor, people sat at most of the library’s 51 computers, which all have an Internet connection.

“We’re up about 10 percent (over last year) since July in overall circulation, and that’s a big number,” Todd Dunkelberg, the director of the Deschutes Public Library system, said Tuesday. The system’s circulation was growing more slowly prior to July, by 5 percent over the prior year. Circulation growth for the month of December dropped back to approximately 5 percent higher than the previous year.

At the state level, data on library circulation is not available for the past six months. State Librarian Jim Scheppke said circulation increased by 2.5 percent between the budget cycle that ended in June and the previous budget cycle, and the state set a circulation record of 51.7 million items. Scheppke was impressed by the circulation growth described in Deschutes County.

“The Deschutes numbers sound pretty amazing,” Scheppke said. “It is something we’re hearing in all the public libraries right now. We’ve known ever since the Great Depression in the 1930s that library use pretty much tracks the economy. In bad times, library use has always gone up.”

The Deschutes Public Library system currently circulates approximately 2 million items per year, a number that includes checkouts of the library system’s 365,000 books, DVDs and other materials, Dunkelberg said. Circulation has doubled in the past nine years.

Two factors have likely contributed to greater demand for the library’s services, Dunkelberg said.

The library system increased its spending on new items over the past two years, including more copies of best-selling books to help decrease the time patrons wait for items on hold.

“I think the other part is the economy,” Dunkelberg said. He recently spoke to a mother who told him the library was a nice place she could take her children and check out books, without having to pay anything.

“Because at the time, she was dealing with bills and lowered income because of the economy,” Dunkelberg said. “I think for some people, that’s what is happening right now, is we’re a place they can go and not have to feel all that financial pressure.”

On Wednesday morning, Clifford Lyon, of Bend, was reading the newspaper at a desk next to a sunny window in the Bend Public Library.

“I come here because I live at the Bethlehem Inn (shelter), and have to leave in the daytime,” Lyon said. At the library, Lyon said he browses the Internet, reads and checks out books. Lyon sometimes checks job listings on the Craigslist and Oregon Employment Department Web sites, and he will start looking in earnest when his unemployment benefits run out this week, he said.

Internet is a draw

Internet access at public libraries continues to draw patrons, Scheppke said, despite some early predictions that some people would get their own computers and Internet connections, and stop using libraries. “Our business is bigger than it’s ever been, and this economic situation has really added to that,” Scheppke said.

It is difficult to judge whether more people used the library system’s public computers in recent months, Dunkelberg said, because the computers have historically been in use 90 to 95 percent of the time.

“I can tell you anecdotally the change I’ve seen is a lot more people doing résumés on the computers, especially because a lot of businesses now will only take electronic applications,” Dunkelberg said.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who are actually having to start their computer literacy skills with their job search,” Dunkelberg said.

Other attractions

Patrons at the Bend Public Library on Wednesday morning gave a variety of reasons why they use the library. Joseph Hollander, of Bend, said he can get almost any book he wants and likes the convenient e-mail notifications that tell him when books are ready to pick up. Several parents and a nanny in the children’s section said the library is a great place for children to interact with each other.

“She loves story time,” Dave Nissen, of Bend, said about his daughter, 3-year-old Annicka. On Wednesday, however, they decided to skip story time so Annicka could put on large headphones and play on a computer, one of her other favorite library activities, her father said.

Lance Mousel, who was browsing the bookshelves on the second floor, said he comes to the library because “it gets me out of the house,” and he is using the library to learn more about Oregon history.

“We hate to see all these economic difficulties, but on the other hand, it’s really good for our business,” Scheppke said. “And I just hope people see that libraries are really important to families and to everybody, and that the services we provide are really heavily used.”

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