By Karen anderson
BALTIMORE – As Baltimore’s unemployment rate rose, many people headed to the library.
Since the onset of the recession, attendance at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s career center classes has jumped 92 percent.
For free, the Central Library on Cathedral Street in downtown Baltimore offers a range of classes that teach how to build a resume, network strategically, search and apply for jobs online, make their employment “recession proof,” get a federal job in 10 steps and develop basic interviewing skills.
The rise in attendance is nearly in sync with the city’s rise in unemployment, which came close to doubling between April 2008 and March 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“If there’s a silver lining to the recession right now,” said Roswell Encina, director of communications for the Pratt Library, it’s that “people are remembering what libraries have to offer.”
The library added its job and career resources section during the recession in the early 1980s and has built on it since then.
“These are classes that for the most part we’ve always done, but we started doing them more regularly since the need has risen,” said John Damond, manager of the library’s Business, Science, and Technology department.
The recent increase in attendance is not unexpected, Damond added. People are returning to the library for both practical and recreational purposes.
“It’s pretty standard that in bad economic times public libraries do better business because of all the free resources,” he said.
This spring, attendance rose 50 percent at the free City Lit Festival, a six-year-old annual literary celebration co-sponsored by the Pratt Free Library and the City Lit Project, a Baltimore-based nonprofit dedicated to a culture of literacy. Also, in recent months the Central Library has begun screening newly released family movies at no charge to guests.
The library is providing such services and activities because it knows there is a need.
“In Baltimore we understand that 42 percent of people at home don’t have a computer,” Encina said. “We’ve heard from some of our patrons who’ve cut Internet services at home and are now relying on us for Internet use.”
“We’ve had more people coming in and asking for this,” Damond said. “And as long as people are asking and as long as (classes) are still well attended, we’ll keep doing them.”
To a large extent the job market has become digital and moved exclusively to the Web, making employment searches difficult for Baltimoreans who do not own a computer.
“We have so many customers…who aren’t as comfortable using computers,” Damond said. “And really about 80 percent of job announcements and applications are online now.”
But as it tends to its new visitors, the library is facing its own budget trouble. After all, 84 percent of the library’s $41.5 million annual budget comes from the government through direct funding or grants.
“The irony is libraries are so needed right now, but unfortunately when the cities are in a financial crunch they seem to see libraries as one of the first things to cut,” Encina said.
Although services have not been reduced, citywide 60 of the nearly 500 library jobs are vacant and will remain so until the city lifts its hiring freeze.
While no jobs have been cut, positions were not filled when workers left or retired.
“We are utilizing the rest of the staff a little more just because there’s so much to do,” Damond said.
The mayor’s office is considering closing certain branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system on certain days — Mondays, Fridays or both — when attendance is typically at its lowest. The library would maintain regular hours and services on the remaining days.
“We feel good if that’s the worst-case scenario that could happen to us when other libraries in the country are facing actual closings,” Encina said.
The Pratt Library has had to be resourceful to address the growing number of people turning to the library for help.
Such changes include increasing the time allowed on computers to offer longer web sessions for job seekers.
Most of the 75 to 100 computers available in the Central Library have a 30-minute limit, which Damond said is not long enough to do a thorough job search or submit an online application.
The solution was to up the time limit to two hours for six computers — four in the Business, Science, and Technology Department and two in the public computer center — and designate them for job use only.
“We had so many people coming in here and asking for job help, we had to make these computers available for people who are just doing job stuff,” said Damond.
“If demand keeps increasing we can convert more over,” he said.
The increasing demand is a good example of the dire straits that people are feeling, Encina said.
“Instructors were telling me it used to be blue-collar workers,” Encina said. “Lately they have been telling me it’s been a lot of white-collar workers in need of help.”
He knows that the demand for classes will slow once the economy starts to improve.
But for now, Encina said, “We are capitalizing on all the new patrons coming back.”