In a slow economy, more readers are turning to public libraries - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

In a slow economy, more readers are turning to public libraries

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Posted: Monday, August 2, 2010 8:00 am | Updated: 4:26 pm, Wed Dec 3, 2014.

Amy Diehl remembers when a trip to the library was almost exclusively about books, and through the years, she has remained old school.

"My husband has a Kindle, and I'm more impressed with it than I thought I would be," Diehl said during a recent visit to the Tempe Public Library with her 8-year-old daughter, Grace. "But I like the tactile part of reading a book, turning the pages and holding the book. It would be hard for me not to do that."

While Diehl is content to sift through the bookshelves, public libraries have had to diversify their offerings to attract users in the age of the Internet, mega-bookstores and Kindle, a portable digital reading device.

These are interesting times for public libraries, which around the country have been faced with budget cuts and reductions in staff and hours. However, the slow economy that has affected the library's bottom line has increased their clientele.

Those dynamics are being experienced by facilities in the East Valley.

"It is a challenging time, but it's an opportunity for us to demonstrate the value that we can add to people's lives," said Brenda Brown, manager of the Chandler Public Library. "People are using our computers to look for jobs. We're also seeing people that, a few years ago, had the disposable income to go to Barnes & Noble on a regular basis who no longer can.

"We've been re-found, if you will, by people that I think are going to keep coming back."

Space that was once exclusive to books, reference materials and periodicals is taken up by compact discs, DVDs and rows of computers with Internet access that, for many, serve as the only access to such technology.

During a recent morning at the Tempe library, 50 of the 53 available computers were being used at one of the lab locations.

Downloads of thousands of e-books and audio files are available at libraries' websites.

"We'd like to think people are not just discovering that on their own," said Kate Havris, assistant director of the Mesa Public Library. "We've been trying to put the word out. We found that, to compete against bookstores, we have to market ourselves and offer things bookstores don't. Hopefully after that, it becomes word of mouth."

The economy has hit local libraries hard. Tempe's weekly hours of operation have been reduced from 70 to 56, though Sunday closure was avoided. Mesa cut staff after its budget was slashed by 33 percent. Chandler has reduced its hours, and adult programs and some youth programs were eliminated at the Southeast Regional Library in Gilbert.

Still, visitors keep coming. Mesa had 1,367,667 visits to its three libraries in fiscal 2009-10, a 1-percent increase over the previous year. Chandler had 1,501,280 at its four libraries, and the Tempe library - which recently underwent an $8 million renovation that includes one of the biggest children's libraries in the nation - has experienced a usage increase of more than 10 percent since the economic downturn began.

Nationwide, 25.4 million people used a public library more than 20 times last year, up 25 percent from 2006, according to research by the American Library Association.

"Even with the renovation, use never went down," said Tracy Hokaj, Tempe adult services librarian. "We had an increase in new library-card issues. And in terms of research, librarians can help you decipher good information from bad information.

"The library may have to shift with the times, but we'll never go away. We are still a needed part of any community."

And libraries will need to keep adapting in the coming years, Brown said, as the demand for digital content is expected to overtake that of physical content.

"Really, we've been going through this since the 1930s, when paperback books were introduced, and everyone thought hardcovers would go away," Brown said. "For a while, we were all wondering if we should buy Beta ...

"The technology will keep changing, but people will always want to learn new information."

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