Libraries see more traffic in down economy

Published 11:00 am Friday, March 20, 2009

Pelham Public Library was abuzz Wednesday morning as adults logged on to computers and children filled the downstairs story time room. Most would have assumed the increased library traffic was due to spring break, but director Barbara Roberts knows better.

As Roberts sits in her office, she reviews circulation figures that she says will “knock your socks off.” For the first five months of fiscal year 2008, from October 2007 to February 2008, the library checked out 144,035 items. For the first five months of fiscal year 2009, the library checked out 163,540 items – nearly 20,000 more items than last year.

Roberts said Pelham’s circulation hike is easy to explain. When the economy is down, library use goes up.

“All of this is just a sign of the times we’re in right now,” she said. “December is our slowest month, and December rivaled circulation in June, our busiest month. When you see a 30 percent increase in your slowest month that really gets your attention.”

Computer usage has also experienced a spike, Roberts said. So far this fiscal year, 6,407 people have used the computer center compared to 5,632 people this time last fiscal year.

Pelham isn’t the only Shelby County library to see such growth. Circulation at Alabaster’s Albert L. Scott Public Library has increased by nearly 17 percent, said Circulation Director Edelene Turk. Montevallo’s Parnell Memorial Library has experienced the largest increase at 87 percent. Interim Director Christi King said 4,475 items were checked out last month – an 81.7 percent increase from February 2008. Computer use was up 48 percent.

“I think people have dropped their private Internet service, and use the library’s computers,” Turk said. “And as far books, magazines and DVDs, people aren’t spending money on entertainment like they used to.”

Calera Public Library director Janet Greathouse and Columbiana Public Library director Jane Bailey agree with Turk, saying people aren’t buying books or renting movies. Why buy or rent when you can surf the Internet and check out books, movies and CDs for free?

Calera’s circulation has increased by nearly 36 percent. Columbiana has seen a 16 percent increase. Bailey said 5,806 items were checked out last month compared to 4,761 items in February 2008. Vacancies at the computer center are rare.

“We have waiting lines,” Bailey said. “It is amazing.”

Bailey added most computer users are creating resumes and conducting Internet job searches for the first time.

“We’re finding a lot of people who’ve never used computers before having to come in to put in applications,” she said. “With more companies are accepting online applications, you have to do it online now.”

Greathouse and Roberts said they can’t keep resume writing and financial planning books on the shelves. Greathouse has ordered six additional books for Calera’s library to fulfill requests.

Pelham Public Library will host a series of workshops this fall about resume writing, self-marketing, and interview techniques. Because demand is high, Roberts wants to accommodate as many people as possible.

“We’re trying to respond to what people need and what people want. Our effort is to try to meet the needs of the community,” she said.

The county’s librarians don’t like the reason why library use has increased, but they hope the trend continues after the economy recovers.

Daniel Dearing, director of Helena’s Jane B. Holmes Public Library, predicts library use will continue to rise as summer time nears. The summer months are usually the busiest for libraries, and this year could produce record numbers. Helena has seen a 6 percent increase in circulation this fiscal year.

“Spring break has been kind of crazy in here, and I think it’s because people aren’t going out of town that much,” he said. “This summer, we’re worried it’s going to be a little bit overrun.”

Circulation Increases at Shelby County Libraries (Oct. 2008-Feb. 2009)

1. Montevallo – 87.39%

2. Harpersville – 58.35%

3. Vincent – 38.31%

4. Calera – 35.57%

5. Chelsea – 34.59%

6. Wilsonville – 30.98%

7. North Shelby – 19.28 %

8. Alabaster – 16.92%

9. Columbiana – 16.35%

10. Pelham – 13.54%

11. Harrison – 13.34%

12. Helena – 6.01%