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Local libraries see rise in usage, drop in funding

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By Chris Sardelli

As the unemployment rate rises and disposable income becomes a thing of the past, many residents are searching for fun at an affordable price. That’s where local libraries are filling the need.

Hundreds of Lancaster County residents have been flocking to local libraries, hoping to take advantage of a wide selection of books and movies they can check out for free.

Nancy Deane, circulation assistant at the Del Webb Library in Indian Land, says many people have been checking out movies so they don’t have to pay to rent them at a video store.

Deane has also noticed a huge turnout for storytime events at the library, which usually feature readings of popular children’s books, as well as singing.

“We always have rooms full of children and moms during storytime,” she said.

“It’s a hot-ticket event because it’s free, educational and entertaining.”

Nancy Berry, branch manager at Del Webb, has also seen more customers than usual. The branch opened last month, but has already checked out more than 7,000 books and signed up 2,291 borrowers. Computer usage has also been high.

“Folks have come in using the Internet looking for jobs; I’ve seen a lot of that,” Berry said. “I’ve also seen lots and lots of folks just coming in and reading for pleasure.”

Berry said the most popular books include fiction, home improvement and gardening.

Lancaster resident Heyward Martin uses the computers at the main library in Lancaster to pay bills because it’s one of the few places where he can get Internet access for free.

“I like to look up different kinds of information, like searching for homes,” he said. “It’s just a good thing for me.”

Helen Knight, who often browses the Lancaster library racks for books for herself and her granddaughter, has noticed more and more people at the main branch over the last few months. Sometimes there are at least three lines of people waiting to check out.

“I’ve noticed a tremendous increase of people coming here,” Knight said. “But I guess if they’re going to spend time doing something, this is an excellent way to spend it.”

Richard Band, director of the Lancaster County Library, has also seen a dramatic upswing in the number of people visiting the main branch.

“It has a lot to do with the economy,” he said. “I think the library is a place people turn to in hard times to help them cope.”

Band said the library offers a good alternative for people who can’t afford to buy a book or rent a DVD. The library has also become an important stop for job searchers who use books on resume writing and test taking to aid in their search. Band has seen many people check out books about civil service exams or earning real estate licenses.   

Comparing bimonthly statistics from November and December 2008 to the same time in 2007,  circulation was up almost 12 percent. Band said this translates to 25,904 items checked out from the library in the last two months of 2008, compared to 23,141 during the same two months in 2007.

He has also seen a similar increase with computer usage. In 2007, the 12 computers at the main branch were used 4,559 times. At the end of last year, those same computers were used 4,969 times, an increase of almost 9 percent.

“I definitely have noticed that our computer usage is up, just by the fact that we have a waiting list quite a bit during the day,” he said. “They come to the library because there’s nowhere else they can get access to a free computer.”

Band said a majority of computer users are searching for jobs, filling out job applications and updating resumes online. He has noticed that many employers are requiring their employees to fill out W2 forms online, which has contributed to the surge in computer users at the library.

Funding down for libraries

Ironically, as demand for libraries has increased, the amount of funding for local branches has decreased.

Lancaster County Council, in an effort to avoid layoffs and furloughs, approved a 1 percent, across-the-board budget cut in December.

The cuts impacted most of the county’s departments and organizations, affecting everything from the lighting project at the recreation department to funding for the library system.

Band said the library has already lost $30,000 in funding from the state and believes more cuts may come before the end of the fiscal year. He said it’s hard on the library when both the county and state make drastic cuts.

“It’s a double whammy for us,” Band said. “We just hope we can hang in there.”

And while Band doesn’t believe the budget cuts would force libraries to close anytime soon, he said future cuts could result in furlough days for library employees.

Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis said the cuts have been difficult for local libraries. With cuts from both the county and the state, he said libraries have been forced to do with less.

“They were really walloped that way,” Willis said.

He said County Council, which makes the final decision on budgets, is not anticipating further cuts right now, but said it all comes down to what the budget situation looks like as the year progresses. If it comes down to funding county and emergency services or funding services like libraries, Willis said the vital services will win out. But despite the potential for future cuts, he said libraries wouldn’t necessarily be the first groups to be impacted.

“I don’t know if it (funding for libraries) will be the first to go,” Willis said. “We’re not looking at anything right now, as far as further cuts, but who knows what could happen.”

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli  at csardelli@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 416-8416