Santa Clara County libraries provide lifeline to folks struggling with recession

San Jose Mercury News

Santa Clara County libraries provide lifeline to folks struggling with recession

By Patrick May

February 23, 2010

Shhhhhhhh! We're trying to get through a recession over here.

Like the lives of so many people who use them, local public libraries have been redefined by the economic turmoil of the past two years. Aisles are filled with both the desperate and the determined. Bookshelves serve as toolboxes for the unemployed attempting reinvention. And folded into the chairs and couches are seniors, new moms and out-of-work dads, all longing for escape or inspiration in what feels these days like the neighborhood temple of hope.

"A library today is so much more than a simple repository of books," said Derek Wolfgram, a deputy librarian for Santa Clara County. "In a sense, it's become a living room for the community. And with so many people in need of help right now, a library truly is a safe place and a place that doesn't judge you."

From the increase in self-help books being checked out to the surge in job-search workshops being offered, libraries are packed not only with people — the county's branches report a 10 percent uptick in foot traffic since the recession began — but also with reflections of the economic turmoil's deep reach into ordinary Americans' lives.

Some have cut cable service at home to save money, so DVD and CD borrowing surges; burned-out long-term job hunters seek out social interaction or just peace and quiet amid the narrow rows; and children whose parents furiously work two and three jobs plug into video games, blocking out recession-borne stress that can make their own bedrooms feel like jail cells.

"I'm here today for an escape," said Abigale Potts, a 20-year-old community college student scanning an Internet job board in the Santa Clara City Library. "My father's having problems at work. They were laying people off and he's working fewer hours, so this gets me out of the house and creates less friction at home. There are so many people suffering out there who use this library as a getaway."

The new patrons, many of them having just received their first library card ever, are looking for a whole range of services, while the libraries, most of them operating on reduced budgets and relying on a growing volunteer base, struggle to provide them. Mary Nacu, assistant director for San Jose Public Library, admits, "It's a challenge for us, when the need is up and our resources are down, so we try to focus where the greatest need is."

These days, that's helping people find jobs. At the Cupertino Library, one of the busiest in the United States with 3 million items checked out each year, community librarian Rosanne Macek says for many people going to a library nowadays really means going online.

"In some communities," she says, "the library is one of the only places you can get free access, so we provide computers and Wi-Fi, because people are finding out that the Internet is their path to a job."

The job seekers come in droves. Settling in at terminals, they scour Craigslist help-wanted ads, research companies they're applying to, and take online classes. Some even gather for regular networking sessions with other job hunters. With all the meeting, browsing and noshing going on, a newer branch can look more like a Barnes & Noble — complete with cafe and couches — than a library of old.

Some bring along their laptops to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi many libraries offer. San Jose librarian Gayleen Thomas at the Rose Garden Branch, which offers one-on-one training for basic computer skills many job applicants lack, says that even after the building closes at night, some patrons just can't bring themselves to log off.

"Our Wi-Fi goes from 6 a.m. until midnight," she says, "so you'll see people at night sitting in their cars outside working on their laptops, because either they don't have access at home or they don't have the money to pay for it."

Margot Nack, a 37-year-old San Jose mother of two laid off last year from Washington Mutual, says the Willow Glen Branch Library was a godsend in the months before she finally found a new job at eBay. "I needed a space away from home where I could concentrate, because it's just not reasonable to expect to get anything done with kids running around."

Nack says she and two other patrons became "regulars who came in every day. One was studying for a nursing exam and another guy was working on his job hunt. It was nice because there were other people doing the exact same thing as I was. Job hunting at home can make you feel totally isolated."

That emotional toll of the recession is something librarians see every day. Mary Boyle, who works at the reference desk at Santa Clara's state-of-the-art library, said a woman just this week "asked me for the book on how to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, but it had already been checked out. We've had to order many more copies the past few years because bankruptcy, unfortunately, has been a really popular topic."

But just as important as the books and magazines and databases contained within these hushed spaces is the space itself. San Jose's Nacu says that "especially for immigrant populations, people find comfort in a library. Those of us brought up here often take them for granted, but for many people the library is like the last resort. In some ways it's replaced the safety net of social services that have gone away because state and local governments can't keep up with the needs out there."

Ever since he was laid off last year as a drugstore cashier, Sudanese-born Mario Bol, 26, has spent much of his waking days at the Santa Clara City Library, forced to rely on the public computers since the one at home is broken. He keeps coming back, scanning the job sites with everyone else, in search of one thing.

Says Bol, "I look for hope here.''

Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689.

Free Wi-Fi and computer terminals
Live musical performances
Literacy and ESL conversation classes
Job seminars
Crafts and knitting classes
DVDs, videos and CDs
Cafes and vending machines
Movie nights
Networking meeting spaces
Book clubs
Teen and group-study rooms
Gift shops Internet training
Foreign-language books on tape
Oh, yes . . . and plenty of books.

Source: Mercury News reporting