She applied for a new library card and — after taking out two chick-lit novels, an illustrated “Star Wars” book for her 5-year-old, Jake, and two animal books for her 2-year-old, Ben — she instinctively pulled out her wallet to pay.
“I guess it will take an adjustment period until I realize that some of the best things in life are indeed free,” she said.
Ms. Weiss’s cheerfully erratic return to her local library illustrates a surprising upside to the economic downturn: Libraries are booming.
Indeed, the bad news on the economy is good news for libraries across the New York region, so long as they can escape the budget ax that is falling on many municipal services as cities and towns struggle with declining revenue.
People are flocking to libraries after forsaking Barnes & Noble or ditching their HBO service and subscriptions to Netflix, library officials said, because libraries’ books, DVDs and CDs have a significant advantage: They are free.
Some people are showing up at libraries for the first time for free entertainment — movies, lectures, concerts and puppet shows, library officials said. Still others are capitalizing on their newspaper racks, books and free Internet service for job searches and investment advice or advice on a topic that the title of a much-thumbed book makes obvious: “Surviving a Layoff: A Week-by-Week Guide to Getting your Life Back Together.”
There is an incongruity in libraries’ providing such a wealth of free services because libraries themselves are vulnerable to the economy. Towns and school districts have started to make cuts, and library hours and employees are frequent targets.
In Maplewood, Jane Kennedy, the library director, is grappling with a 10 percent cut to her budget, reducing it to $1.7 million, and she lamented that she is contemplating layoffs, payless furloughs and shorter hours.
“People need us more than ever, and we’re not going to be there for them,” she said, noting that circulation had climbed 8 percent from 2007 to 2008, to 235,285 items. “People count on us and we want to do more, not less.”
Librarians said they had not had to make major increases in purchases of books and DVDs, only shrewder ones — buying extra copies of, say, a John Grisham novel and cutting back on books that might not have as large a readership.
For now, libraries are welcoming their new popularity.
In Chappaqua, in Westchester County, Pamela C. Thornton, the director of the Chappaqua Library, said that circulation in December was up 22.3 percent from December 2007, with patrons checking out 35,692 books, DVDs, CDs and other items.
In Teaneck, patronage for the last quarter of 2008 was up 7 percent compared with the previous year’s last quarter, with 144,500 items borrowed, according to Michael McCue, the library’s director.
The Bergen County Cooperative Library System, a consortium of 75 libraries in northern New Jersey, reported an 8.2 percent increase in borrowing in 2008, with 10,887,000 items taken out.
“People are reawakening to all the things the library has to offer, and unfortunately this is because of the economic downturn,” said Arlene Sahraie, the library services director for the Bergen County network. “There’s a saying among librarians that libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.”
Robert White, the director of the network, said he had calculated that “the average yearly value to every card used in our system was $706.”
“You don’t get that kind of rebate on the Discover Card,” Mr. White said. “And it’s all free.”
As in Ms. Weiss’s case, librarians said they were noticing more adults getting library cards for the first time, or sheepishly explaining that they had lost their cards or even paying long-neglected late fees so they could use the library’s free Internet service.
Jude Schanzer, the director of programming at the East Meadow Public Library, on Long Island, tells the story of a middle-class woman in her 50s who dropped in late last year after work and applied for a library card. She confided to a librarian that it was the first library card she had possessed since childhood.
“Now I don’t have to buy my books,” she told Ms. Schanzer. “This is how I’m cutting back.”
In Ridgefield, an affluent Connecticut town where many residents work at nearby companies like Pepsi, General Electric and I.B.M., people are tapping the public library’s free services even if they are financially comfortable enough for now, library officials said.
“I just think people are hunkering down,” said Christina Nolan, the library’s director. “They may not have to cut out Netflix, but they’re choosing to do so because they don’t know what’s around the corner.”
Indeed, as Ms. Nolan spoke, Ann Harrington, a mother of two married to a freelance illustrator whose assignments, she said, were slipping, was carrying a half-dozen DVDs, including “A Few Good Men” and “The Upside of Anger,” as well as the inspirational football film “Facing the Giants,” which her whole family could watch.
Ms. Nolan said attendance was up 20 percent at the library’s abundant — and free — weekend and weeknight programs, with residents opting for those rather than tickets to Broadway or Lincoln Center or a movie at the multiplex. Ms. Nolan has shown the Batman movie “The Dark Knight” and “Man on Wire,” the documentary about the Twin Towers tightrope walker, to packed houses of about 100 people, something she said would not have happened a year ago.
Last fall in Chappaqua, a showing of “Waitress,” with a sweetener of 15 pies to highlight a movie motif, brought out 95 people.
East Meadow is a blue-collar and middle-class hamlet of 40,000 on Long Island, and attendance in the library’s adult programs has gone up by almost 2,000 in a year to 19,241. So many children now attend “Storytime” that the library runs two sections to accommodate all comers.
In Maplewood, Ms. Kennedy, the head librarian, said she had noticed more fathers bringing their children in during the day, “more than we’ve ever seen before.” She said she assumed that some of them may have lost their jobs and had the time to take their children to the library.
Fewer au pairs are bringing children in because some stay-at-home mothers are doing without such help, librarians in Ridgefield said. In Chappaqua and Ridgefield, families are signing up for free passes to places like the Museum of Natural History and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, library officials said.
“Here you’d think, ‘Chappaqua? People can afford to go,’ but they’re constantly in use,” Ms. Thornton, the library director, said of the passes. “We’re finding people fighting over them.”
In Ridgefield, Ms. Nolan said she had observed that people who have lost jobs in a town where two-acre zoning can isolate them are finding their way to the library to seek congenial company.
“The library is used as a gathering place for people who are intelligent and have similar values so they’re not as isolated,” she said. “We have days that 1,400 people come through our doors. That’s a lot for a town of 24,000.”
With unemployment rising, people are flocking to the library for help in finding jobs or switching careers or brushing up résumés or checking the financial ratings of companies that are advertising for help, library officials said.
In Maplewood, librarians decided so many people were asking for information about finding jobs that three weeks ago they began holding workshops on skills that longtime jobholders may never have needed, like uploading résumés on Monster.com.
“We thought we’d be getting people who were looking for jobs at Home Depot, but instead we got all white-collar professionals,” Ms. Kennedy said. “That took us back for a minute.”
In East Meadow recently, four of the nine Internet-ready computers were being used for job searches.
One of the searchers was Gary Eisele, 54, who lost his job as a customer service representative for American Home Mortgage Investment, a Melville, N.Y.-based firm that filed for bankruptcy in 2007. Mr. Eisele, one of 1,400 people let go on Long Island, has taken some temporary jobs and was checking help-wanted ads on Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com in the library because, he said, he could no longer afford home Internet service.
When “Slumdog Millionaire” started winning its haul of best picture awards, Mr. McCue, the Teaneck Public Library director, went out and bought copies of the book it is based on. He said he knew there would be requests the next day.
While meeting patrons’ needs, libraries are facing austerity themselves. Teaneck’s library, with a $2.5 million budget costing each homeowner $140, has begun talking to the township about possible cuts, said Mr. McCue.
Ridgefield’s library, with a $2 million budget, has been hit with a $60,000 cut this year, which it has been able to absorb with small adjustments, but officials there worry about what may happen when the town votes on its budget in May. To give itself a cushion, the library raised late fees to 25 cents from 10 cents.
Nonetheless, Ms. Nolan, of the Ridgefield Library, said she thinks that sustaining free services is essential.
“A library is the people’s university,” she said. “From cradle to grave, you can come here and learn about ballet, astronomy, gem cutting or whatever you want.”