Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Library use grows as economy slows
Visits to Jacksonville branches rise 15%

By David Bauerlein
Times-Union staff writer

Jacksonville residents coping with tighter household budgets are deciding that credit cards are out, library cards are in.

Over a 12-month period ending in July, the Jacksonville Public Library System saw a 15 percent increase in visitors compared with the previous year, while circulation rose 11 percent. In July, five of the seven regional branch libraries set all-time records for circulation in a month.

The slowing economy is one explanation for libraries gaining popularity. An American Library Association study, released in April, found that when the economy goes down, library use goes up. The association said the study confirmed what librarians already knew from their own experience.

"Every time there are hard times, library use goes up," said Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association. "Jacksonville's increase is especially dramatic."

He said he's not aware of any other library system that's shown such a big increase.

Besides the economy, Jacksonville officials cite a host of other reasons for people heading to libraries. They point to the buzz surrounding the Better Jacksonville Plan's construction of new libraries, the addition of computers at every library, and doubling the budget the past five years for buying books.

"I think it's a combination of factors and it's gaining momentum," said Director of Libraries Ken Sivulich. "I don't see it slowing down. June was a great month, July was an even better month."

The biggest gains have come at the regional branches. At the top is Regency Square branch in Arlington, where on a weeknight the activity is at least as brisk as one of the nearby chain bookstores in the mall area.

Carol Ohmer said she began going to the Regency branch around October of last year, looking for a way to save money.

"I found they had all these different things," she said. "I didn't realize they had music CDs and books on tape and videos. It just snowballed from there."

On a recent visit, Ohmer left with two paperbacks, eight arts and crafts books to get ideas for a church fund-raiser, and three compact discs. She goes every two to three weeks, she said.

Sivulich said the higher use of libraries the past year is notable for the amount of increase, but he adds that growth has been occurring the last five years. He said it shows the library system has been able to give people what they want. For instance, the budget for buying books in the 1998 fiscal year was less than $1.5 million. For the current year, the budget is more than $3.3 million.

Sivulich said the additional funding enables the libraries to stock more titles and keep current with the most popular books.

The library system's challenge for the future will be to maintain customer service in the wake of the heavier workload that comes with more visits and check-outs, Sivulich said. He said the past year is just a taste of what he expects will occur when the Better Jacksonville Plan libraries are built. The plan, approved by voters with a half-cent sales tax hike, includes $150 million for construction of a new main library downtown and six new branch libraries.

"When all the libraries are online, I think we'll see circulation go through the roof," Sivulich said.

Staff writer David Bauerlein can be reached at (904) 359-4581 or via e-mail at dbauerleinjacksonville.com.