Story time has always been a popular event at the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy. But last fall, when children's librarian Jane Miller reported to work to register families for her story time classes, she could hardly believe what was waiting for her: a long line, snaking through the library, out the door, down the block, and into the parking lot.
"I was shocked," Miller said. "Shocked. In the nine years I've been here, I had never seen such a line before for any of our story times."
In the fast-paced, instant message, Internet era, public libraries have often struggled for attention from patrons. But with the economy sputtering, unemployment rising, and no relief in sight, Massachusetts libraries, long the victim of budget cuts, are busier than ever before, said Robert Maier, director of the state Board of Library Commissioners.
Attendance is surging. Check-out rates are soaring. At some libraries, circulation - the number of items checked out in a given month - is up as much as 33 percent since last summer. And for the unemployed, libraries have become something like an office, with computers, Internet access, and even classes that teach how to write a r??sum?? and peddle it online. In a tough time, it seems, people are returning to a place where whispering trumps shouting and no credit card is necessary. At the library, just about everything is free.
"It's classic," said Deborah Abraham, the library director in Everett, where circulation is up more than 23 percent in the first five months of this fiscal year. "When the economy is bad, library use goes up. That's pretty clear. It has happened before, and it certainly seems like it's happening again."
The trend, playing out nationwide, has librarians celebrating, but worrying, too. The same financial crisis squeezing pocketbooks, pushing people to borrow - not buy - books and DVDs, is gutting state and local budgets as well. And so at a time when demand for library services is growing, libraries themselves, which rely on state and local aid, could be facing cuts in 2009.
"It'd be nice to be rolling in money," said Amy E. Ryan, president of the Boston Public Library, where budget cuts are expected this year despite a 7 percent increase in circulation since last July. "But this is a time to really be thinking about our priorities at the Boston Public Library. How do we reach more people? And how do we deliver the best services? We need to change. We need to change with the times."
Libraries have been changing for years, repositioning themselves to attract patrons in a digital age. In recent years, libraries have expanded their DVD collections, opened Internet cafes, attracted children with video game hours, and even used technology to let people download music and video.
Such efforts have helped increase library circulation in Massachusetts ever so slightly in each of the last nine years, even as funding in many communities has been flat or falling. The key reason, according to state data, is patrons' growing interest in borrowing DVDs, books on CD, and other audio-visual materials.
But historically, nothing boosts the profile of a public library like a nice, dreadful recession, and this one is shaping up as a doozy. Maier estimates that circulation is up as much as 7 percent statewide since last July, and some communities can barely keep up with demand.
Circulation is up more than 33 percent in tiny Groveland - population 6,900 - and 30 percent in Milford. West Dennis, Essex, Everett, and Franklin have all recorded 20 percent increases or higher in the first five months of this fiscal year.
The Boston Public Library's branches are thriving. Many libraries saw even larger increases in December. In Groveland last month, circulation was up a stunning 88 percent, said Deb Hoadley, the library director there.
"We are air conditioned. We have heat. So people who may not have those things, we're available to them," said Hoadley. "And also, we have the resources that they're looking for. There are computers and techniques for career building. Especially in these times, people need to have access to the Internet and have somebody help them."
Such services are invaluable - especially now - to people such as Miguel Lopez, a 24-year-old unemployed parking garage attendant. Out of work since October, he's been spending his days lately at the Egleston Square Branch Library in Boston, working on his r??sum??. Without the library, he said, he doesn't know where he would go.
And without the library, Kathleen Foster, a mother of two, would still be spending a lot of money on books.
"In the past, I would take the girls to Borders, or Barnes & Noble, and let them pick out a book," said Foster one day last week, walking the aisles of the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy with her daughters, Abigail, 8, and Clare, 6. "I just don't do that now. We come here instead."
That's good news for libraries, said Maier. But still, he's worried about the year ahead. Just last week, Governor Deval Patrick announced that the state may face a $1 billion shortfall in the months ahead, which could mean cuts in local aid.
Cities and towns - often unwilling to slash funding for education or police and fire services - have turned repeatedly in recent years to the library for cuts. In some cases, Maier said, cuts have gutted libraries, and he's worried about that happening again this year.
"I'm very concerned for residents of towns that may wind up with a library that is a shadow of what it has been," he said, "one that may be open, but really has no library services."
In the meantime, however, librarians such as Miller, in Quincy, will be working harder than ever to keep up with demand.
After the long lines for her story time sessions last fall, Miller switched to a lottery system to determine who got a story time spot. But that confused people, she said. And so recently, she decided there will be no more registration for the children's story time programs.
Instead, starting at the end of this month, every Quincy resident will be accepted, she said, even if it means that classes once limited to 10 children balloon in size.
"It could be 50 people," she said recently, shaking her head. But Miller plans to take all comers.
"The problem is," she said, "I hate refusing."
Keith O'Brien can be reached at email@example.com.