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Library usage increases with the recession

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Roseville Public Library
The Roseville Public Library is the most used library in the state.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Library usage is on the rise. Wireless and public Internet access has risen by almost a quarter this year and circulation of books is up by 5 percent so far. 

In Ramsey county's suburbs, patrons are signing up by the dozens for waiting lists on popular movies and music CDs. A rental program for best sellers and new releases has proven a solid financial success. Nearly a hundred people a day have been showing up for children's storytime at the library's seven branches. 

Susan Nemitz
Director of the Ramsey County library Susan Nemitz says library usage in Ramsey County is up this year compared to last year.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Ramsey County library director Susan Nemitz says the Roseville library is the most used library in Minnesota in circulation numbers. 

Megan Schlueter and her three-year-old son Jacob were combing through the bins of books at the Roseville library one afternoon this week. She says she sees more and more parents at the library near her home.

"My family comes to the library every week, but as gas prices have gone up, and groceries, and just life in general, we are at the library all the time getting movies and books. My kids love it here, and its a family friendly environment, and it helps keep the cost of everything else down," said Schlueter.

There are so many people like Schlueter that Ramsey County this week decided to spend $17 million to expand the Roseville library. It will close next spring, crews will tear off the roof and nearly double the size of the building. 

To the east a few miles, circulation at the Washington County libraries is up even more than in Roseville, by almost 10 percent this year. One factor is a new library in Forest Lake, another is the economy. But it's also because of a change in what libraries have to offer. It's not just books, magazines, music and movies anymore.

"We provide computers, access to the Internet, help with writing your resume, job search programs," said Pat Conaly, the Washington County library director.

"We provide a variety of modern technology too, modern access to information, stuff that you can't necessarily get on the Internet, or at least you can't get it for free," said Conaly.

To be honest, it's not free at the library either.

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In St. Paul, for instance, library officials say library services cost about $36 a year per resident.

But in just the last three months, 7 percent more of them are walking through the doors. In just one week  in October, more than 700 people asked library staff not for help finding a book, but for help finding or applying for a job.

That's often true in tough times. Studies have shown libraries have been a refuges in recessions dating back to the 19th century. 

The American Library Association found circulation rose by about 9 percent during the last recession that started in March 2001. 

And while similar figures aren't available for this economic downturn, there are some other telling indicators. 

Barnes and Noble recently reported a 7 percent decline in same store sales. At the nation's other major book dealer, Borders, business has fallen even further, by 9 percent.

Ramsey County library director Susan Nemitz thinks it might be a historical turn in the economics of information, although perhaps a temporary one.

"A long time ago, books were a very expensive technology," said Nemitz. "But if you really look at the last 20 or 30 years, the cost of books has come down significantly, and I think there were more and more people purchasing books, especially in the last 10 years."

But Nemitz says the recession seems to have even the most affluent patrons rethinking their reading habits.