Libraries’ popularity rises as economy sinks

EVERETT— Never mind the Google effect.

In a tight economy, more people are cutting back entertainment costs by checking out books and DVDs and turning to their public libraries for old fashioned help with job hunting.

“We’ve had a tremendous increase in reference questions,” said Roxanna Pandya, assistant managing librarian at Sno-Isle Library’s Lynnwood branch. “It’s like the old days here when we were really, really busy.”

Libraries nationally are seeing a surge in activity, even in areas that have dipped in recent years as more people used search engines like Google, and they’re pointing to the deepening recession as a reason for the uptick.

In the 21-branch Sno-Isle library system in Snohomish and Island counties, checkouts of entertainment-oriented DVDs, excluding documentaries and educational programs, were up from about 1 million in 2007 to nearly 1.2 million in 2008.

While population growth and other factors, such as the proliferation of DVD players, are at play, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest increased library use is linked to the economic downturn. Everett, which runs a two-branch city system, also has seen more use.

Washington State Library recently surveyed library use in six categories at more than half of the state’s public library systems.

It found an 11 percent jump in checkouts over a six-month period between June 2008 to November 2008, compared with the same period in the previous year.

Reference requests, which had actually seen modest declines earlier this decade, a likely result of increased home Internet access, were also up substantially.

So was the number of people who used library computers to search the Internet and the amount of time people spent using those computers.

Leonard Thompson of Arlington has no computer at home. Since October, he has frequently visited the Marysville Library to apply for jobs online.

In October, Thompson, 55, was laid off from his job in quality control for a wood-products company.

“I’ve got some college education and right now I can’t find a flippin’ job to save my life,” he said. “It’s pretty gnarly out there.”

In Sultan, the library saw so many people unfamiliar with computers filling out online job and unemployment applications, it doubled the amount of time people can use the computer from one hour to two.

Rick Scott, 53, of Oak Harbor visited his library nearly every day for a year to search for an information technology job.

The retired sailor, who earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Chapman University in January 2008, after two decades in the U.S. Navy, said he was able to search online classified ads and use the Oak Harbor library’s computers to dress up his resume.

In January, he found a job in his field at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Prior to that, he had to take a part-time job as a janitor to “keep the wolves away from the door.”

“It took a lot of perseverance,” Scott said. “But the equipment and the resources the library had made it possible to find a job.”

Kate Mossman, assistant director at the Everett Public Library, said she’s noticed more people browsing the magazine selection and more people taking advantage of a library database that allows cardholders to take practice entrance exams for graduate schools and civil service jobs.

Loretta Grippando, 56, of Everett, who recently used a computer at the Everett Public Library to work on a midterm project for a class she’s taking at Everett Community College, said she isn’t surprised by the new state survey.

“The computers are getting busier and busier,” she said.

Reporter Bill Sheets contributed to this report.

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