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Libraries offer an online lifeline for today's disposessed

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Britt Aamodt
Britt Aamodt is a freelance writer and Elvis Presley fan living in Elk River, Minn.
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A few weeks ago, I settled in for a good hour of Internet surfing at the library. I like to surf at the library. The computers are always powered up, and time limits force me to do more with my day than stare at a computer screen. I can fit a lot in an hour, when the clock's ticking.

But I jealously guard those minutes. So I had to will myself to patience when the woman on my right tapped my shoulder. She went into a long explanation about e-mail accounts and documents and the library's printer. What she wanted, I discovered, was to print a document sent as an e-mail attachment. But she didn't know how to open the document. I showed her how, and went back to my computer station, where I had 30 minutes remaining. 

"Excuse me," the woman said. "I'm sorry to bother you again. But how do you get this to the library printer?"

Feeling not just the minutes but my goodwill ticking away, I lumbered over to her computer and punched the printer icon -- and belatedly realized I was printing foreclosure paperwork.

"I'm losing my house," she told me, possibly because she wanted to confirm what I'd already guessed, or because she just needed to talk. "I got laid off a while back. I've been trying to find another job, but you know how that goes."

Since 2008, I've heard a lot of these confessions. I call them Recession Confessions. I hear them at the grocery store, at ATM machines, in coffee shops: about how so-and-so lost her job, her house, her identity; about the resumes sent out, the jobs that never came through, the hand-wringing in the early hours of morning.

But I'd never had one at the library until then. And that one conversation opened to another. The man on my other side piped up. "I lost my house last year," he said. He'd lost his job in construction and was thinking of going back to school. Still, he said, he spent six days a week at the library, looking for jobs, shooting resumes into the void of cyberspace.

I never noticed him before. I never noticed the turnover in my library's patronage, from tots and stay-at-home moms to the houseless and unemployed. 

In the Great Depression, lost men haunted garbage dumps. In today's recession, blue-collar castoffs drift to library terminals, hoping to close the digital divide with the assistance of librarians, who more and more find their roles changing to accommodate the new clientele. 

Yes, librarians still check out books and collect fines. But they also help patrons with online applications and job searches. They print documents, explain software programs, navigate unemployment sites, locate social services and buoy spirits. A study reported Thursday that one-third of all Americans use library computers, and that the percentage is even higher among poor people. Librarians have become the everyman's job counselors and computer instructors, and the libraries their career and business centers.

Because I'm a regular, I know the librarians by name. I know small facts about their lives -- who likes to garden, who rides horses and who has a son in Korea. I know one of my librarians may lose her job. 

Minnesota is facing nearly a billion-dollar deficit. The money has to come from somewhere. But I hate to think of my library shedding personnel or closing its doors an extra day every week. 

Because the library isn't just a warehouse of free entertainment anymore. It is a technological resource for those who've lost their access to technology. It is a training center for those whose former employment never prepared them for today's job search, which requires basic computer skills to fill out online applications and post resumes. Most of all, the library is a place to go, when the house is gone, and the job, to keep showing up and putting one foot in front of the other on the road back to economic self-sufficiency.

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Britt Aamodt is the author of "Superheroes, Strip Artists & Talking Animals: Minnesota's Contemporary Cartoonists," to be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press this fall.