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Something for free: Public libraries in recession
Amidst a vexing schism of increasing usage and decreasing funding, the Kitsap Regional Library is reaching out to users.
With the country in the throes of recession, the American public library is amidst a great reemergence.
“The Public Library Renaissance” the New York Times’ heralded the phenomenon earlier this year. The premise is simple: in hard economic times, people flock to what is free.
“In terms of tough times, you can really equate Kitsap Regional to libraries across the country,” said Carol Schuyler, director of support services for the Kitsap Regional Library, noting a dramatic increase in circulation numbers, new card applications and door counts since the economy took a dive.
In April the American Libraries Association released its 2009 State of America’s Libraries report, which found new card applications and circulation numbers across the country had seen double-digit percentage increases (as high as 61 percent over last year’s numbers in Boise, Idaho), while the number of Americans holding a library card — more than 68 percent of the entire population — was the highest its ever been, since the ALA started measuring usage in 1990.
But, in the face of ever shrinking civic budgets across the board, the implications of a growing renaissance are paradoxically daunting.
Throughout the KRL, and similarly throughout the nation, library usage is up, while funding is down.
The number of KRL memberships grew from just over 105,000 in 2001 to more than 190,000 in 2008. Almost three-fourths of Kitsap residents now hold active library cards. Meanwhile in the spring of 2007, on the eve of the financial meltdown, Kitsap voters defeated a proposed levy lid lift to funnel more tax dollars into the libraries.
But, unlike many other public libraries in similarly grim situations, KRL has not been forced to lay off any employees nor close down any of its branches.
In the two years since the levy lift was voted down, the KRL has worked to bring its spending in line with existing revenues, while seeking to expand its offerings to the community.
In response to the recent rapid increase of job-seekers and career-changers turning to the libraries for help with resumes and applying for jobs online, KRL has set up a word processing station, outfitted with Microsoft Office software, at each of its branches. They’re also planning special sessions in the fall, dedicated specifically to job-seeking services, during hours which the library would normally be closed.
“We try to really tailor our programs to meet the community needs,” Schuyler said. “Lifelong learning has always been important, as are the early literacy things, but a third strong message is that our community really sees us as supporting education for children, as having a formal role in supporting education.”
To that end, another number that’s grown akin to the overall usage of the library over the past few years, is enrollment in the KRL’s summer reading program for kids. Last year, more than 7,000 kids pledged to read 10 hours a week over the summer, with a near 50 percent completion rate, compared to the 30 percent national average.
“Not only are we checking books out, but we’re creating a love of reading and a love of learning that will last children a lifetime,” Schuyler said, which, all budget problems aside, is priceless.
The KRL is now in the process of determining its strategic plan for 2010-2015 and again seeking public input on its current, as well as future programs. On online survey is available along with more information at www.krl.org