Chilled economy fuels usage at libraries

On days when the Codman Square Branch Library opens at noon, crowds wait for a librarian to unlock the door. And the computers are filled most days with people searching the Internet or fine-tuning resumes.
At Codman and throughout Dorchester, as the economy has slumped, usage and borrowing at libraries has surged. People scrimping and saving through the recession are turning to libraries as a source of free reading, entertainment and help finding jobs.

Citywide, Boston Public Library circulation is up nearly 7 percent so far this fiscal year, compared to the same period last year. In Dorchester, all but one of the branches have shown at least double-digit increases in the numbers of books, movies and CDs borrowed.

“People are definitely saying, ‘I can’t afford to go to the bookstore anymore, and why would I if I can get it free at library’,” said Christine Schonhart, neighborhood services manager for BPL.
And Schonhart said librarians citywide are seeing big increases in people asking for help with tasks such as filling out on-line job applications and attaching resumes to e-mail.

At the Codman Square branch, where circulation is up 10 percent, librarians said the bump in library usage has extended to other areas as well.

More people are coming to the library to read newspapers and magazines, said Branch Librarian Janice Knight, perhaps because they’ve cut back on subscriptions. Some are borrowing movies because they can’t afford cable, she said. Attendance at all library programs is up, and more people are requesting free or discounted museum passes available at the library.

This year, summer camp programs were coming to use the library more than in the past. And Youth Services Librarian Chris Strunk said requests for summer reading books were “off the scale” because parents were borrowing instead of buying for their kids.

“It is kind of the classic thing we learned in library school,” said Strunk, regarding the use of libraries during a tough economy. “There are more people using the library all the time.”

Ernest Chislom, who searched computer job listings recently at the Codman branch, said he has come to the library as many as three times a week recently as he looks for two jobs ¬– one for nights and one for days. The library computers have taken the place of a damaged home computer the Dorchester resident can’t replace right now.

“It has been very, very handy,” said Chislom, who also uses the Uphams Corner and Mattapan branches. “The people here at the library are very friendly and they try to take very good care of you.”

At Grove Hall, which opened in a new building with four times as many computers and an updated collection based on community requests, usage is up nearly 200 percent over the same time last year. Branch Librarian Richard Kort credits much of the gain to the more convenient location and upgrades. But the economy has also been a factor, he said.
“People are checking out more books and checking out more films, and spending more time in the library and using the facilities,” he said, adding that people are reading more for entertainment and borrowing DVDs because the cost of going to the movies is so high.

But at the Adams Street Branch, the busiest in Dorchester, Librarian Kate Brown said the 20 percent bump in circulation there isn’t necessarily indicative of the economic climate.

She said she’s seen consistent increases in circulation since coming to the library in 2003. The library has always had job seekers using computers, and Brown said people were telling her they’d decided to borrow books instead of buy long before the economy nosedived.
“Our trends are pretty much as they have been,” Brown said.

And a recent resume-writing program, put on there by BPL’s Kirstein Business Library, drew only two attendees. Kirstein, which is based at the main library, has been working with local organizations to bring some job search and other economy-related workshops to the branches. Brown hopes for a bigger turnout at the next session in January.
The only Dorchester branch to see a decrease was Lower Mills, where circulation is down 5 percent over last year. Schonhart surmised that the new Mattapan branch, which opened in February and has seen an increase of 143 percent, has taken some business from its nearby neighbor.

Whatever the reason, most of the branch libraries are serving more people at a time when the economy has led to library budget cuts of $7 million this year. Many branches have seen cuts in part-time staff that help shelve books, so librarians are doing more of that work as well as helping patrons, Schonhart said.

“The staff are so dedicated to customer service, they really step up when the public says they need help,” Schonhart said. “They’re still providing that same service.”

Neighborhood celebrations set for January 2
In honor of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s fifth inaugural, the eight Community Learning Initiative branches of the Boston Public Library are hosting neighborhood celebrations for families throughout the day this Saturday. At the City of Boston 2010 Inaugural Celebrations @the Boston Public Library, families will be treated to free performances, refreshments, and book giveaways for children as part of city-wide celebratory events.

The branches participating are already part of the Community Learning Initiative, which teams schools, community centers, and libraries in neighborhood throughout the city to provide coordinated educational and after-school activities for Boston kids. These branches are: Adams Street, Codman Square, Grove Hall, Honan-Allston, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Parker Hill, and Roslindale. The Grove Hall and Mattapan branches both have brand new facilities opened by the mayor this year.
The celebrations plans for Dorchester and Mattapan branches are as follows:

• Rosalita’s Puppets will perform at the 1 to 3 p.m. celebration at the Adams Street branch of the Boston Public Library, 690 Adams Street, Dorchester.
• Storyteller Doria Hughes will be part of the festivities from 1 to 3 p.m. at Codman Square branch, 690 Washington Street, Dorchester.
• Storyteller Scott Kepnes will entertain at the 2 to 4 p.m. event at the new Grove Hall Branch, 41 Geneva Avenue, Dorchester.
• Bonaparté the Magician will amaze and amuse as part of the festivities from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Mattapan branch, 1350 Blue Hill Avenue.