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Faster Than Population Growth

Library use trends upward in economic downturn.

Friday afternoon at the Eastern Loudoun Regional Library had lines at the book checkout counters and most or all of the computers in use, this a half hour before the library closed.

“It’s the economy or people love libraries more,” said Douglas Henderson, director of Library Services, adding that in an economic downturn, libraries and other public services increase in busyness when residents have fewer discretionary funds. “The analogy we always use, if we were a business, we would be increasing our inventory.”

That’s not the case with budget cuts coming from the state and the county. Usage of the county’s six branches increased by 17 percent in fiscal year (FY) 2003, compared to an annual increase of seven to 10 percent attributed to the county’s population growth. In FY-02, library use increased 7 percent. By FY-03, more patrons were using the library to check out books and other materials, taking advantage of the libraries’ children’s programs, conducting job searches and using English as a Second Language (ESL) materials.

“When there is an economic slowdown, library use increases,” said Linda Holtslander, assistant director of programming and publicity. “Instead of going to a video store, [patrons] come here first, or they read the book first at the library before purchasing it. … Maybe a purchase was a quick action. Now people are putting more thought into it.”

CIRCULATION at libraries nationwide increased significantly since March 2001 — pegged by the National Bureau of Economic Research as the beginning of the current recession — according to two national studies conducted by the American Library Association (ALA).

“It’s the overall pattern we’re looking at. [Since] Sept. 11, we’ve been busy,” Henderson said.

Loudoun’s Library Services circulated 24 percent more materials in September 2002 than during the same month the year before. In FY-02, the library’s circulation jumped to 2.25 million materials from 2.11 million materials in FY-01 and 1.98 million materials in FY-00.

“I was at Eastern Loudoun a couple of weeks ago. … The staff was really busy. The book drop was really high,” Holtslander said.

Library aide Rita Whitely agreed. “We’ve just gotten a lot busier. More books go in and out. More people are here,” she said.

“We’re always busy,” John Harper, reference librarian, said. “Our usage is going up, it’s constantly going up.”

More visitors have stopped at Loudoun’s libraries so far in FY-03, an increase attributed both to the economy and to population growth. The libraries had 399,568 visitors from July through November 2002, a 5 percent increase from the 888,248 visitors who stopped in the county’s libraries from July 1, 2001 to June 30, 2002.

THE INCREASE COMES at a time when Library Services is operating with 1994 staffing levels, Henderson said. In 1994, the library had 90.87 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff members, compared to 109.19 FTE in FY-02. In the next fiscal year, staffing levels dropped to 98.18 FTE, but the workload doubled. Staff circulated 28,987 books per FTE in FY-03, based on a projected circulation of 2.84 million materials for the entire fiscal year. The staff circulated 13,953 books per FTE in FY-94.

“It’s going to be hard for them to keep up if we maintain the hours we have now,” Henderson said, adding that Library Services may have to consider closing on Sundays or cut back on evening hours, as did the Eastern Loudoun Regional Library last year by closing four hours earlier on Sundays. “We are going to have to look at what we consider to be our core services.”

Library Services took a $290,000 hit from the state, along with $70,000 in additional cuts from the county for the FY-03 budget. The cuts resulted in a reduction of Sunday hours and fewer materials added to the Library Services’ collections. The library aims to provide three books per capita under Virginia’s Planning for Library Excellence standard. The library shelved 3.47 books per capita in FY-94 and 2.54 books per capita in FY-02. The collection may increase in FY03 to 2.8 books per capita if the Ashburn Library opens later this year — scheduled at the end of summer or in September if approved in the FY-04 budget — with a stock of 65,000 to 70,000 books.

“Some years we go up, and some years we go down, … depending on the budget,” Henderson said.

BUSINESS at Borders Books Music & Café in Sterling dropped after Sept. 11, 2001, but increased again with sales during the 2002 holidays exceeding the company’s plan, said Betsy Pendergast, manager, adding that she could not give specific numbers. “People are turning to books,” she said. “We have a lot of gift card sales, music sales, book sales. It’s been very successful. We’ve done well generally, but we literally increased the day after Thanksgiving.”