Times Are Tough, and Libraries Are Thriving

Times Are Tough, and Libraries Are Thriving

Alan Zale for The New York Times

SHELF LIFE At the Teaneck Public Library, traffic is heavy.

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Published: March 13, 2009


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New Jersey

In the Region

Alan Zale for The New York Times

Dorothy Gates, left, checks out books for Shira Weiss at the Teaneck Public Library.

SHIRA WEISS, a 34-year-old publicist, showed up one day with her two children at the Teaneck Public Library for the first time in years after her husband had gently inquired why she needed to spend so much on books.

She applied for a new library card and — after taking out two chick-lit novels, an illustrated “Star Wars” book for her 5-year-old, Jake, and two animal books for her 2-year-old, Ben — she instinctively pulled out her wallet to pay.

“I guess it will take an adjustment period until I realize that some of the best things in life are indeed free,” she said.

Ms. Weiss’s cheerfully erratic return to her local library illustrates a surprising upside to the economic downturn: Libraries are booming.

Indeed, the bad news on the economy is good news for libraries across the New York region, so long as they can escape the budget ax that is falling on many municipal services as cities and towns struggle with declining revenue.

People are flocking to libraries after forsaking Barnes & Noble or ditching their HBO service and subscriptions to Netflix, library officials said, because libraries’ books, DVDs and CDs have a significant advantage: They are free.

Some people are showing up at libraries for the first time for free entertainment — movies, lectures, concerts and puppet shows, library officials said. Still others are capitalizing on their newspaper racks, books and free Internet service for job searches and investment advice or advice on a topic that the title of a much-thumbed book makes obvious: “Surviving a Layoff: A Week-by-Week Guide to Getting your Life Back Together.”

There is an incongruity in libraries’ providing such a wealth of free services because libraries themselves are vulnerable to the economy. Towns and school districts have started to make cuts, and library hours and employees are frequent targets.

In Maplewood, Jane Kennedy, the library director, is grappling with a 10 percent cut to her budget, reducing it to $1.7 million, and she lamented that she is contemplating layoffs, payless furloughs and shorter hours.

“People need us more than ever, and we’re not going to be there for them,” she said, noting that circulation had climbed 8 percent from 2007 to 2008, to 235,285 items. “People count on us and we want to do more, not less.”

Librarians said they had not had to make major increases in purchases of books and DVDs, only shrewder ones — buying extra copies of, say, a John Grisham novel and cutting back on books that might not have as large a readership.

For now, libraries are welcoming their new popularity.

In Chappaqua, in Westchester County, Pamela C. Thornton, the director of the Chappaqua Library, said that circulation in December was up 22.3 percent from December 2007, with patrons checking out 35,692 books, DVDs, CDs and other items.

In Teaneck, patronage for the last quarter of 2008 was up 7 percent compared with the previous year’s last quarter, with 144,500 items borrowed, according to Michael McCue, the library’s director.

The Bergen County Cooperative Library System, a consortium of 75 libraries in northern New Jersey, reported an 8.2 percent increase in borrowing in 2008, with 10,887,000 items taken out.

“People are reawakening to all the things the library has to offer, and unfortunately this is because of the economic downturn,” said Arlene Sahraie, the library services director for the Bergen County network. “There’s a saying among librarians that libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.”

Robert White, the director of the network, said he had calculated that “the average yearly value to every card used in our system was $706.”

“You don’t get that kind of rebate on the Discover Card,” Mr. White said. “And it’s all free.”

As in Ms. Weiss’s case, librarians said they were noticing more adults getting library cards for the first time, or sheepishly explaining that they had lost their cards or even paying long-neglected late fees so they could use the library’s free Internet service.

Jude Schanzer, the director of programming at the East Meadow Public Library, on Long Island, tells the story of a middle-class woman in her 50s who dropped in late last year after work and applied for a library card. She confided to a librarian that it was the first library card she had possessed since childhood.

“Now I don’t have to buy my books,” she told Ms. Schanzer. “This is how I’m cutting back.”

In Ridgefield, an affluent Connecticut town where many residents work at nearby companies like Pepsi, General Electric and I.B.M., people are tapping the public library’s free services even if they are financially comfortable enough for now, library officials said.

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