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Amid downturn, circulation surges at public library

Posted by Roy Greene  November 24, 2010 03:52 PM

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(Tom Herde/Globe file photo)

The Boston Public Library's Bates Hall Reading Room.

In his decade serving as the president of the City-Wide Friends of the Boston Public Library, David Vieira has seen the importance of libraries peak and slide along with the nation’s economy.

The recent economic downturn has seen the Boston Public Library take on unprecedented importance to residents looking for a cost-free and convenient way to access materials, with the library breaking records for both book borrowing and website visits in the last fiscal year.

“The library has seen major increases in circulation in all areas,” Vieira said. “Whenever there is an upheaval in the economy of any kind, the demographics of the BPL go up.”

From July 2009 to June of this year, the BPL registered a record 40,000 Boston residents for new library cards, according to data collected by the library. A total of 3.5 million books and audiovisual materials were borrowed from the BPL, the highest number in more than a decade. Over the same fiscal year, visitors to the library’s website ballooned to 7.7 million hits.

Fifty percent of Boston patrons used their library cards at least once, library reports show. And the number of teenagers using their cards crossed the 30,000 threshold in the 2010 fiscal year, an increase of 26 percent since 2007.

The spike in usage comes as the BPL is facing its own economic crisis.

Although four Boston libraries targeted for closing at the end of the summer won a temporary reprieve, the future of the branches still remains in doubt.

State aid to the library has plummeted from $8.9 million in 2009 to $2.4 million this year, with the main Copley Square library forced to lay off 31 workers earlier this fall. Ironically, some of those laid-off workers have been among the thousands of residents who have relied on the library’s extensive computer services to search for new employment, leaders of the library employees’ union say.

“We’ve always been here, but I’d say we have a renewed significant importance during down economic times,” said BPL spokeswoman Gina Perille. “As families are downsizing personal budgets, the library is providing those personal needs.”

The BPL is offering programs to assist the unemployed, including free workshops on careers and resume writing.

While Perille admits there is uncertainty surrounding next year’s budget and anticipates tough times ahead, she believes the library’s popularity is sustainable. She points to a concentrated social-media effort connecting users through Facebook and Twitter, along with a re-established monthly newsletter for library card holders, as new efforts to foster the continued growth of the oldest municipally funded library in the country.

“The library budget has been really declining for two years,” Perille said. “[But] we’re in the middle of an exciting strategic planning process. We would be doing this when times were good or challenging. This is even more important when times are tough.”

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Zach Hayes, under the supervision of Journalism Instructor Lisa Chedekel (, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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