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Press & Media » The Denver Post

Consumers Go Back To The Stacks

The Denver Post (Newspaper) - 12/8/2008 by By Alana Semuels Los Angeles Times
Libraries experience an upswing in use as cost-conscious consumers take advantage of free Internet access, free books, CDs, DVDs and magazines

LOS ANGELES On a recent morning, television journalist Heather Downie was carrying so many books, CDs and DVDs that it looked as if she'd need at least one shopping bag to get them to her car. But she wasn't at Borders or Blockbuster. She was perusing the aisles of the Los Feliz branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, a place she's been visiting a lot more lately to save money.

Downie, 25, recently canceled her $16 monthly Netflix subscription and is trying to resist the temptation to buy books, instead checking out movies and books from the library.

"It's a great way to cut costs without having to sacrifice anything," she said.

Stores may be quiet these days, but libraries are hopping.

The Los Angeles Public Library is "experiencing record use," according to spokesman Peter Persic, with 12 percent more visitors during the 2008 fiscal year, which ended June 30, than the previous.

Patrons checked out 17.2 million books, DVDs, CDs and other items during that period, a 10 percent increase. Some branches report even bigger spikes in use.

"Traditionally, in tough economic times, public libraries experience an upswing in use," Persic said.

At the San Francisco Public Library, about 12 percent more items were checked out in October than a year earlier. Chicago's public library system experienced a 35 percent increase in circulation. The New York Public Library saw 11 percent more print items checked out (a spokesman said that could partly be explained by extended hours).

Websites such as that allow readers to exchange books for free are also becoming more popular. PaperBackSwap founder Richard Pickering said the site has seen a 25 percent increase in traffic in the past three months as people trade, rather than buy, books in an effort to save money.

As one of the few places with free Internet access and public computers, libraries also see an upswing in traffic from job-hunters when unemployment starts to rise, said Camila Alire, president-elect of the American Library Association. Last year, only 44 of the top 100 U.S. retailers accepted paper applications filled out in stores, she said, which means that applicants need the Internet.

Because they're not selling anything, libraries don't profit directly from the increased traffic. Like many things funded by taxpayer dollars, libraries take a hit when the economy does.

A public library in Georgia recently considered closing most of its branches due to funding issues, Alire said, and school libraries in Maryland have been hit particularly hard by budget cuts. The main library in Long Beach, Calif., was in danger of being closed down to save money, although the City Council voted down the proposal after widespread opposition.

The shift, from buying books to borrowing them, is hurting bookstores and publishing houses. Barnes and Noble Inc. last week reported a third-quarter loss of $18.4 million, which Chief Executive Steve Riggio attributed to "a significant drop-off in customer traffic and consumer spending."

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