Business Brisk at Area Libraries
In Bad Times, Free Resources are a Hot Commodity
by Annie Gowen
Washington Post, February 2, 2009
In the past few months, [the Germantown, Md., library] has become even busier. The library, like most in the Washington area, has had a rising tide of users as patrons look for free computer access, DVD loans and activities for children during the recession. Circulation in the last six months of the year rose as much as 23 percent in libraries around the region, records show.
The influx comes just as county managers are preparing budgets for the coming fiscal year in a time of huge shortfalls. Libraries, like other services, face drastic cuts that could mean reducing staff and hours or even shuttering branches.
This reporter made it sound like only in "bad times" do people stoop to visit the library. In "better times," they have their own books, apparently, as well as their own computers and their own Internet.
This is a fallacy. Libraries are not a shelter during bad times but a place where resources are used all the time. Part of the draw is the changing face of libraries: more are getting wireless Internet access, giving people a place besides Panera or Starbucks to visit.
Speaking of which, libraries are changing with the times — and the patrons. While they still have the "Shhhh!" factor, more are allowing the amenities that draw and keep people coming back. My local regional library allows covered drinks, offers plentiful meeting rooms, holds community activities and has the vaulted ceilings and bright lights the reporter describes.
Many municipalities have invested in their infrastructure, upgrading their libraries from the energy-efficient windowless cubes popular in the Sputnik-era School of Architecture to the fast, bright, window-rich environments. They're moving from the quiet corner of the 'burbs to the bustling downtown. Libraries are starting to come to us, rather than expecting us to flock to them, unbidden.
Finally, libraries are providing many of the books people want to read. Of course, this isn't new — however, more people mean more popular books, and that's not a bad thing. They're not getting rid of the classics, but they are examining the checkout rate of books and removing from circulation books that are not checked out on a regular basis. I'm not sure if there's a better way of culling the herd, but anyone with a bookshelf understands only so many books fit on the shelf.
Libraries also are providing reading material in the manner in which we consume it. I have friends who live on recorded books. Others have gone e-bookish. (Frankly, I probably should consider it, what with the amount of time I already spend on my computer.)
So, while I think the facts speak for themselves — circulation is up, libraries are full — I disagree with the reporter's observations that this is a new phenomenon. Libraries are in, libraries are cool — still. We can argue about whether members of the public uses them because they've decided to "cut back" or whether they just love their new libraries. In the end, they're full, and you can't argue with that.