Libraries see increased use in recession

HATTIESBURG — Rachel Westley often spends two Saturdays a month strolling the aisles of the Hattiesburg library, looking for books.

An avid reader, Westley said since economic downtown, she and her family have limited bookstore trips in exchange for library excursions.

“I wouldn’t be able to read as much as I wanted to if it weren’t for the library,” said Westley, who lives in Hattiesburg. “I’ve always been a patron of the library.”

Even during budget cuts, library officials say they are making accommodations to meet the needs of an increased clientele — a component they attribute to the harsh economy.

Nationwide, library visits are up 10 percent from 2006, according to the American Library Association. Pamela Pridgen, director of the Library of Hattiesburg, Petal and Forrest County, said her staff began reporting more people checking out books, DVDs and magazines and using the facility’s free Internet as early as June.

According to recent statistics, the library reported a 1 percent increase in visits from 2008 to 2007. The Hattiesburg and Petal locations had 87,011 visits between October to January.

“From a visual standpoint we certainly see the library filled with people,” Pridgen said. “At the same time, libraries are feeling the crunch of the economy and we’re trying to be more effective.”

Pridgen said the library has slashed about $7,000 of its current $1.9 million budget. The cutbacks have caused the library to leave four part-time positions unfilled.

“Every penny counts here,” Pridgen said. “We are trying to use our resources wisely. We’re trying to be very conservative in our spending. We have not cut our budget for buying books and materials because they are in high demand.”

In Lamar County, library officials also report an increased clientele. However, the system also has cut more than $5,000 from its current budget. The library reported a total budget of 117,535 in 2007, compared to 166,044 in 2008.

Library Director Jeanne Crider said the system, with locations in Lumberton, Purvis, Sumrall and Oak Grove, has seen its largest increase in computer usage. According to 2008 statistics, the libraries reported 25,310 computer uses compared to 14,483 in 2007.

“I think what’s happening is people are turning their Internet services off and using the library,” Crider said. “There’s always people in our parking lot using the free wireless.”

To accommodate its added patrons, Crider said the library also has decided to leave several positions unfilled.

“We still do the best we can and I think we do a good job, despite (budget cuts),” she said.

Despite a 7 percent budget cut, Jones County library officials say they too have seen an increase in patrons. The Jones system’s annual budget of $500,000 and they have trimmed about $6,400.

Director Mary Louise Breland said the library system, which includes Laurel and Jones County locations, will open a new Ellisville library in May. The will accommodate growing needs of local customers, Breland said.

“We have a lot of people using the library; they’re (checking out) more movies, audio books and everything that people can share apparently,” she said, adding that past and recent statistics were not available. “We just recently started gathering stats due to the increase,” Breland said.

She said the library is leaving positions unfilled and freezing salaries to accommodate a bigger crowd.

“I didn’t anticipate the increase in library use,” Breland said. “A lot of people are checking books out rather than purchasing them.”

Earlesha Butler/The Hattiesburg American

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