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As economy worsens, area libraries gain patrons

Washington County Library administrators said last week that demand for the public library's Internet and computer resources has increased, in large part because of a growing number of job seekers. (Bulletin photo by Jon Avise)

A year ago, Jerry Rybold might have shelled out for that new book or classic blues album without thinking twice.

But Thursday afternoon, the St. Paul Park man headed straight from work to the Park Grove Branch of the Washington County Library System and spent some time leisurely thumbing through racks of CDs -- all priced just right, he said.


"That certainly helps right now," Rybold said.

Rybold isn't alone in his rediscovery of the public library. Lately, Washington County's Park Grove Branch in Cottage Grove has been "extremely busy," said Carol Warner, manager of the county library system's south region.

"In this economic climate we expect (library use) to increase, which normally happens during a recession," Warner said. "This is free access. Free access to movies. Free access to books."

But in this 21st Century recession, libraries have more to offer those looking to save -- or even those searching for work: word processing programs, computers, free Internet.

"We're seeing some change in the demand at the Internet stations," Warner said. "Lots more people are doing job-related things," like applying for unemployment insurance, updating resumes and searching for jobs.

"And they're asking for our help in those endeavors," she said.

Library administrators are working to put together a database of job search-related Web sites, an effort to help staff who are seeing a growing number of residents using their local library to find work.

Washington County Library Director Patricia Conley said in the past, Cottage Grove's 30 library computers have typically been used for e-mail, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and online gaming.

But in a sign of dire economic times, a significant portion of users now are logging on and using the Microsoft Office suite, typing away to update resumes.

"We know people are working on their resumes," Conley said, "we know (resume) books are in high demand and high circulation. No question people are coming in looking for jobs."

"This just happened," Warner said of the Park Grove library's impromptu role as a de facto job search center, "and we're trying to figure out what we can and should do."

'I worry about more cuts'

But as demand for the Park Grove library has increased, its hours have decreased. Budget cuts forced some of the county's libraries to slash their hours of operation, including Park Grove, which lost nine hours each week on Jan. 1.

Conley said the cuts were difficult considering the 6.6 percent countywide spike in number of people walking through library front doors. Adding staff, though, wasn't feasible with a state budget crisis passing on problems to county and local governments.

The cut in hours means "it's possible, if not probable, that we've lost some customers," Warner said. But considering the budget crunch, "it was the best decision at the time."

The Park Grove branch's compressed hours haven't driven off Chikezie Waturuocha, but the changes have made it more difficult for the 38-year-old Cottage Grove man to find a quiet spot to take advantage of the library's wireless Internet on his laptop computer.

Waturuocha said he lives a short walk away from the library and used to like taking advantage of the library's quiet morning hours to get some work finished outside the office.

Now, with morning hours axed and the library busier, Waturuocha says he has to work a little harder to find himself a nice, quiet spot.

Waturuocha relies on the library for more than workspace. He checks out children's books for his son, and saves money by taking out DVD movies from the library instead of renting from a video store.

More reductions in the branch's hours would be devastating, he says.

"I worry about more cuts because, from all indications, things will get worse before they get better," Waturuocha said.

Conley obviously hopes that can be avoided. But the county library system's roughly $6.6 million budget is comprised almost entirely of property tax revenues. And in a still-deepening recession that could mean trouble.

"Will we reduce hours further? I do not know, I just do not know," Conley said. "How long is this going to last?"