August 12, 2008 in City

Check out the lines

Library business booming during economic downturn
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Cole Thompson, 10, left, and his brother Philip, 11, delve into some fantasy fiction in the children’s area of the downtown Spokane Public Library.
(Full-size photo)

As everything gets more expensive, the region’s public libraries – and their free services – are becoming more popular.

In everything from book checkout to Internet usage, libraries in Spokane, Spokane County and Coeur d’Alene say they’re seeing significant increases.

In particular, participation in youth summer reading programs has boomed – rising by 32 percent in Spokane, for example, and exploding by more than fourfold in Coeur d’Alene.

“It’s every librarian’s dream,” said Bette Ammon, director of the Coeur d’Alene Public Library, “having lines of people waiting to come in when you’re unlocking the doors, checking out all your books.”

For Spokane’s Ron Graham, whose physical ailments have left him unable to work, checking out video documentaries and movies are crucial sources of entertainment. His wife uses the library for materials to home-school their daughter.

“We can’t afford to go out and rent movies,” said the 55-year-old Graham recently at the downtown Spokane branch, arms loaded with a Titanic documentary series on videotape. “It’s really a lifeline for me. It keeps me from going crazy.”

Dina Kalina picks up books and videos for her two young children, and audiobooks for her husband. The former teacher – who’s now raising her kids full-time – said buying books is a luxury.

“We’ll definitely check them out first,” she said.

Library officials say they’ve long known that tough economic times go hand-in-hand with increased use of free library services. There are, however, other reasons for some of this year’s increase – especially in Coeur d’Alene, which opened a big new library in September. In the Spokane district, there has been some modest expansion of hours, too.

But library directors say those changes don’t account for all the growth. And the Spokane County library system, which hasn’t increased hours or opened a new branch, has been seeing more use as well.

“This last July, across the district, across our 10 branches, it’s the highest circulation, the most checked-out materials in six years,” said Beth Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Spokane County Library District.

She said library workers are hearing patrons talk a lot about the library as a frugal choice. “They’re coming in and saying, ‘Normally we would buy this, but we’re not going to buy books right now. We’re going to check them out,’ ” she said.

The trend has gotten national attention over the past month, with libraries all over the country reporting higher circulation and usage. Librarians say the connection between a poor economy and a busy library is well-known – at least to them. The American Library Association commissioned a study in 2002 that showed a pattern of increased library usage in poor economic times.

“As the economy takes a downturn and as public libraries have funding pressures … that’s when the public is using them more and more,” said Pat Partovi, director of the Spokane Public Library.

At Spokane County libraries, the number of checked-out items has risen 5 percent this year, compared to last year at this time. Gillespie said that follows years of flat or declining usage.

Increases are more dramatic elsewhere. Spokane city libraries have seen checkouts rise 12 percent, and they’re up 73 percent in Coeur d’Alene – where the new building is certainly helping drive big increases.

Branches all over the region have seen rising interest in summer reading programs for kids, and officials say it’s at least partly because families are scaling back on more expensive recreational options.

“For some of the kids participating in our program, this may be the one summer recreational activity they have,” said David Townsend, spokesman for the Coeur d’Alene library.

Townsend said 1,524 people participated in summer reading programs this year, compared to 348 last year – with about the same number of programs.

“That’s pretty incredible,” he said.

Internet access and information is another growing area of service for libraries, ranging from access on library computers to free wireless service to databases that patrons can download from a Web site. Gillespie said some of the Spokane County district’s more popular downloads cover information about how to find a job.

For Victoria Jones, the library is fuel for her habit.

“People say I gobble books up,” said the 53-year-old Spokane resident.

She’s always used the library a lot, but “I probably use it more now. If I was buying every book I read, that’s where my salary would go.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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