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February 3, 2009

Your library card: In today's economy, don't leave home without it!

Even libraries are feeling the effect of the slower economy. A failing economy equates to an increased demand for services - especially among job seekers using library computers or families looking to save by checking out books and videos instead of buying them. In this economic downturn, libraries are being called upon now more than ever as many have nowhere else to go.

It's apparent that what the library has to offer is more attractive at a time when cutting back on expenses becomes commonplace. A look at the numbers for all kinds of library usage shows that essentially, everything is up as OCLS is tracking a significant spike in visits and circulation. We've seen a surge in circulation numbers as regulars rely more on our services and new faces come through the doors every day. At the Orange County Library System (OCLS) in December, circulation was up 20 percent. Over the last year, new library card registrations have increased 25 percent. Use of public access computers is up 17 percent.

Meanwhile, out-of-work people use the public computers to search and apply for jobs while families forced to be frugal turn to public libraries for free entertainment, DVDs, videogames, music and reading materials. Attendance in the Orange County Library System's free computer classes have increased 41 percent in the last year as many unemployed enroll in classes such as Resume Writing, Searching for Jobs Online, Writing Cover Letters and Online Resources for Successful Interviews.

The upswing in library activity is only half good news. The bad half is that the economic climate has also resulted in reduced funding for libraries. The very same economic conditions that are bringing more people through our doors also mean less funding for libraries. With declining home values, libraries - funded mostly by property tax dollars - will be receiving fewer dollars. We're being forced to serve more people with fewer resources. Not exactly a sustainable proposition. In fact, the worsening economic picture is affecting libraries in Florida and all across the country. Make no mistake - the library constantly struggles to keep costs under control while providing services to the community.

Many libraries - including some in Florida - have had to cut hours and reduce purchases of new books, DVDs and other materials as well as significantly decrease the number of library programs available to the public. Numerous libraries have had to cut hours, days of operation, book budgets or staff positions. Thanks to a fiscally conservative Board of Trustees and library administration, that is not the case in Orange County. A combination of sound fiscal management and creative strategies has enabled us to not only to keep libraries open but to continue to improve what we offer to the community.

OCLS has aggressively gone after grants and is currently in receipt of nearly $400,000 in funding from a variety of outside sources. These funds make it possible to provide vital services and programs to the community - things like family literacy, a series of financial workshops offered in Spanish, academic success programs for area students, a health and wellness series, and classes to help those pursuing citizenship. More than a million dollars in additional grant funding is pending.

Public libraries are no longer just quiet places where people go to check out books or study. Libraries have worked hard to respond to patrons' evolving needs, and today many public libraries are vibrant community centers offering information, education, cutting-edge technology and entertainment. The changes couldn't have come at a better time when consumers are searching for discounts, freebies and any place where they can save a few bucks. With disposable spending budgets gone, we are just glad we can be of service to people. To steal from a familiar marketing slogan . . . Your library card: In today's economy, don't leave home without it!

Mary Anne Hodel
Library Director & CEO

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