As economy gets worse, more turn to items they can check out for free at library

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Kimber Huffman and her daughters, ages 4 and 7, are regular visitors to the Rowan Public Library on West Fisher Street.
“We go weekly, regardless,” Huffman said.
Family members check out a DVD on occasion, but they stick more to books. Her daughters, Huffman said, love the library.
Of late, more and more people are discovering the wonders of the public library.
The downturn in the economy has resulted in a surge of business at libraries in Rowan County as well as elsewhere across the state and nation.
“The library is always a good indicator of an economic downturn,” said Jeff Hall, director of the Rowan County Public Library. “We get busier as the economy gets worse.”
Hall said business at the system’s three branches increased 10 percent during 2007-08 fiscal year.
In the first six months of the current fiscal year, traffic was up another 3 percent, meaning the overall hike from a little more than a year ago is 13 percent.
Hall said during a typical year, the door count at the library increases by 3 percent. The spike of the past 18 months is the equivalent of that usually witnessed over four years.
“People come here for cheap entertainment,” Hall said.
Tuesday is movie night at the library’s headquarters, with patrons able to watch a film for free in the Stanback Room. They’re also given free popcorn and lemonade.
Turnout for movie night, Hall said, is large and growing weekly.
He said a number of the library’s patrons are also checking out DVDs as opposed to paying to rent them from video stores.
Hall recalled a recent afternoon when he took a stroll through the West Fisher Street headquarters and took a gander at the shelves that usually hold DVDs.
“Where are all the DVDs?” Hall asked Melody Moxley, the library’s administrative manager who was walking beside him.
“They’re all checked out,” she replied.
Across the nation, library administrators are hoping Barack Obama makes good on his election pledge to “connect our schools and libraries” to the Internet and to his 2004 Democratic convention speech where he said, “we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries.”
Recently, senior Obama advisor David Axelrod said support for libraries is still part of the economic stimulus package goal of “refurbishing the nation’s classrooms and labs and libraries so our kids can compete.”
Locally, Hall said about 800,000 items were checked out of the Rowan County Public Library last year. The system includes the headquarters on Fisher Street and branches in Rockwell and China Grove/Landis.
Of those 800,000 items, about 473,000 were checked out at the library’s headquarters.
Hall said this is the third or fourth economic downturn he’s witnessed during his 20 years with the library, though he said that in some regards this one seems worse than the others.
He said use of the system’s computers increased by 16.5 percent over the past year, with a large number of patrons visiting to work on their resumés or search online for jobs.
Other patrons, Hall said, inquire about online computer classes. The library offers classes on subjects such as how to use e-mail and the art of mastering Microsoft products.
“We’ve even had classes on how to write a resume,” said Moxley, the library’s administrative manager.
Hall said the system is in the process of adding eight computers to its headquarters and will add four computers to the Rockwell branch before year’s end.
“And we still won’t have the capacity to keep up with demand,” he said.
Hall said the Rowan County Public library has the equivalent of 51 employees, though many of its employees work part time.