Duluth Public Library bustling in tough economy
Tom Kohler uses the Duluth Public Library's computers every week to look for work. Without Internet access at home, the unemployed 25-year-old Duluth man relies on the free service at the library to check online job listings. "This is the only pl...
Tom Kohler uses the Duluth Public Library's computers every week to look for work.
Without Internet access at home, the unemployed 25-year-old Duluth man relies on the free service at the library to check online job listings.
"This is the only place except the government [services] center where I can use a computer," Kohler said as he navigated the Internet on a recent afternoon.
He's not alone.
As Kohler checked online job listings, Keith Harding of Duluth was doing the same thing a few computers away. He has been looking for a full-time job since moving to Duluth nine months ago with his wife.
With jobs hard to find, he said, "We just can't afford Internet right now."
Like other libraries across the country, the Duluth Public Library has seen a jump in usage during the economic recession.
The increased usage is evident in the main library's computer lab, where all 13 Internet computers generally are in use and an automated sign-up system recently was added to manage the demand.
The Duluth library computer users either have canceled their home Internet service to save money, or they never had it to begin with. More than ever, they're using the library's free Internet access to help with their job hunts.
"Our computers are busy from the moment we open through the day," said Nancy Eaton in library community services.
"We have our regulars every day," librarian Steve Adams noted. "But we continue to get fresh faces, asking how to sign up, how it works."
Twenty-year-old Rebecca Swenson of Duluth is a regular, using the library's computers at least twice a week to keep in touch with out-of-state friends, investigate colleges and do homework. She works two days a week and can't afford her own computer.
"I just think it's really great," Swenson said of the library's free Internet access. "The only negative is the library is open too few hours."
Not just computers
Library patrons are doing more than keeping the computer lab filled all day. They're checking out more books, DVDs and CDs instead of buying them. They're using the library's free children's activities and other programs for entertainment.
Despite reduced library hours since September to save the city money, and a spring renovation project that restricted library use for two months, the number of items checked out per hour increased, though the number of cardholders did not. In 2008, 171 items per hour were checked out, compared to 160 in 2007 at the main library downtown and the two neighborhood branch libraries, according to Eaton.
In Superior, more people are coming in to the public library, getting library cards and using the 11 Internet-access computers. The number of items checked out in December was about 25 percent greater than in December 2007 according to library director Janet Jennings.
"It seems like a bustling place all the time we're open and not everybody checks things out," she said. "They use it for a lot of things not reflected in our statistics. They come to read the newspaper, to read magazines, get tax forms and get tax help."
Usage up; budgets down
"Library use is surging all across the country; it's a national trend," said Karen Muller of the American Library Association. Nationwide, the number of checked-out items and library visits have increased more than 10 percent since the last economic slowdown, in 2001. And reports show library use in some communities is up 15 percent over 2007, she said.
"I feel really strongly that during economic downtimes, libraries become even more valuable to the community," Adams said.
Ironically, just as library usage is booming, cities like Duluth have cut back with reduced hours or even closures.
"Unfortunately what's happened is municipal budgets are shrinking, and libraries are facing cuts, even though they're incredibly valuable to the community," Muller said.