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Libraries: A refuge from recession

Public libraries provide free access to books and other media, but budget cuts threaten service

Posted: August 23, 2009 9:13 p.m.
Updated: August 24, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Student Katherine Wutz searches for books at the Valencia Library on Thursday. More Los Angeles County residents are using public libraries due to the recession, but the system's budgets are being cut drastically at the same time.

 
Moments after signing up for a library card at the Valencia Library, Bobbi Bina hauled off seven books, free of charge.

"Wherever I go, the first place I go to check out is the library," said the 57-year-old, who only recently moved to Valencia.

She's the among the latest group of people to make extra use of a service that has historically taken on a special significance in times of change or turmoil.

But while the recession has led more county residents to use the Los Angeles County public libraries, the system has been forced to cut $9.4 million from its already stretched budget.

"It's free and there's more than a bookstore (has)," the 57-year-old Valencia resident said. "I'm using the library more because I'm not working right now. I guess there's a lot of people in the same boat."

Public libraries have provided a refuge for those hit by the recession - a place where books, DVDs and Internet usage are all available for free.

At the Valencia branch alone, the number of users has shot up 4.2 percent and now more than 114,000 people carry cards, library officials said.

Out of all 85 county libraries, Valencia had the highest number of items checked out.

The Valencia branch reported this year their circulation increased 4.8 percent from July 2008 to June 2009, with 802,728 checked-out items. Internet usage at the library climbed 4.9 percent.

Nationwide, the American Library Association found a more than 10 percent increase in checked-out items and library visits in 2008 compared during the 2001 recession.

"I think it says people are coming to use the library in hard times, for job searches, entertainment purposes," said county library administrator Robert Seal. "Because it is a service to the community."

However, the same faltering economy that is driving more residents into the library's book-lined aisles is also eating away at the library's primary source of funding - property tax revenue.

The result has been a $2 million cut from maintenance and hard hiring freezes which has lead to libraries, including the Valencia branch, running on minimal staff.

"We're pretty stretched even in good years," said county Librarian Margaret Donellan-Todd. "Our primary goal is to continue to provide service, because in an economy like this it is important is that we stay open.

"We're thinking we'll hang in there for this year."

Though staffing has dropped off, volunteer hours at the Valencia branch have increased 13.9 percent over the past year. The extra volunteers have provided a helping hand, but lack the expertise of trained librarians.

"Volunteers are always helpful and appreciated," Seal said, "but they don't replace staff."

Aside from recent increases to late fines and other fees, library users have largely been spared from the impact of budget cuts.

Jahmal White, 27, of Valencia has turned to the library's free wireless Internet to help further his education.

"For me, I use it for Internet access and for studying," the Los Angeles Film School student said. "I can't study at home."

American public libraries have long been a place for members of the working class to further their educations and find answers to their problems.

They began as a place to educate newly arrived immigrants and rural workers who were making the transition to city life and factories, said Sari Feldman, president of the Chicago-based Public Library Association.

Today, people are going in for career help and information about preventing foreclosure or scoring scholarships.

"The same thing is happening - the library is a beacon where people can gather," Feldman said. "Public libraries are a very American institution. We like to say we are kind of the cornerstone of democracy: We open our doors to everyone."

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