Economy: How Libraries Are Becoming Career Centers

Libraries are my world. I've been a patron all my life, and for the past nine years I've worked at multiple libraries and archives in and around Detroit. The library as an institution has many roles, but as our country struggles through an economic crisis, I have watched the library where I work evolve into a career and business center, a community gathering place and a bastion for hope.

In the spring of 2007 I got a library internship at the Southfield Public Library, just north of Detroit. Summers at SPL were usually slow, but that year, we experienced a library that hustled and bustled like science-fair project week, midterms or tax season. Yet patrons weren't looking for Mosby's Nursing Drug Reference or 1040 forms. They were coming for information on entrepreneurship and growing their small business.

I interpreted people's interest in our business collection as the first step to pursuing their dreams, but these patrons were not motivated by dreams. They were responding to reality, and they were looking for Plan B. In Michigan, a slew of unfortunate circumstances caused the first rumblings of recession. Rising unemployment was compounded by rampant foreclosures. The auto industry went spiraling, and with it, their suppliers, then neighborhoods. Michigan's deficit grew, budgets were slashed and business slowed. Southfield used to headquarter five Fortune 500 corporations; today only Lear Corp. remains. As the city shed business, it shed tax revenue as well. Department budgets shrank and a hiring freeze permeated the city.

Things worsened in 2008, and in 2009 the economic crisis continues to suffocate Michigan. Interest in small businesses has remained high, but unemployment, the credit crunch and foreclosures command our patrons' attention and, consequently, ours. Last year, we put up a display with a variety of job resources that we restocked every hour. Each night the library closed, the display was bare. While we normally keep displays up for a week, we kept the job resources display up for months.

Our computer terminals began to fill up, too—this may not be unusual for smaller libraries, but SPL has more than 150 computers, and now some of the people coming in to use them had never even touched one. I challenge you to find someone that's never turned on a computer, explain to them how to use the mouse and keyboard, set up an e-mail address, and then fill out an online application. Now imagine doing that in less than 15 minutes while a line of people with more questions grows impatient at your desk. That's a typical weeknight at SPL.

Some of these folks are job seekers who are suddenly confronted with having to fill out online applications. I recently worked with a man in his mid-50s who was laid off after 25 years as a delivery driver. I helped him navigate the Web sites for UPS and FedEx, search through open positions, register his information and then apply for a job. He quickly became self-sufficient and returned often to check his application's status. I haven't seen him in a while; I'm hoping that's a good sign.

Housing is also a huge issue, and patrons routinely ask about rental vouchers, mortgages, foreclosure lists and apartment searches. A large number of low-income, mentally challenged or illiterate patrons often cannot comprehend the information and are in dire need of a social worker. At times, these conversations are trying, but demonstrate the extent of need.

Regardless of who they are, you can always hear the patron's voice quiver when living arrangements are uncertain. People are scrambling to keep a roof over their heads and as librarians we stay mindful that these folks are vulnerable. A local "company" publicized a free foreclosure-information event at SPL, unbeknownst to the library. The local news caught wind of it and aired a story without researching the company or contacting us. The next day we had ourselves a hubbub as people clamored to get their foreclosure packets. Worse yet, the representative of this "company" was asking for a $20 application fee just to give patrons what was freely available. One older woman was willing to forgo her medication for the week to pay the fee. A veteran librarian derailed the questionable practice by offering our service and the information for free.

Then there's the tightening credit market. People see the writing on the wall and they want to get educated. They can't afford a financial adviser, but checking books out is free. Some of the most popular titles now are "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," "Think and Grow Rich," and "Suze Orman's 2009 Action Plan." We answer question about taxes, stimulus checks, grants, bankruptcy, credit scores, credit reports and many other personal-finance issues. Fortunately, we have all had comprehensive business training. Without it we wouldn't know where to start—especially now.

The crumbling economy affects us all. I have had to work long hours and don't get to see much of my boyfriend or experience any kind of social life lately, but I am thankful to be in a position where I can help people overcome this struggle. The long days are made great when I help job seekers find work, talk to teens about college, meet new business owners, have a discussion about literature and watch senior citizens send their first e-mail to their grandchildren. These small victories and billions just like them are why librarians continue to fight the good fight. In Michigan, we haven't lost hope. As long as there are libraries here, there will always be hope.