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Columnist
Libraries lend free hand to those struggling in bad economy
By Sarah Long | Columnist
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Published: 4/28/2009 12:09 PM

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It's a familiar story: When times are tough, library usage goes up. The media has been full of variations on this theme for the past year.

Here's the back story: Library staffs love to serve and be busy. It's that missionary spirit that calls certain people to work in libraries in the first place. Rather than trying to contain the busyness, library staff work hard to keep it going and to keep the crowds coming.

Here's a sampling of what libraries in the North Suburban Library System area are doing to reach out in these tough economic times.

Paula Moore, executive director of the Arlington Heights Memorial Library reported, "Our focus has been on people who have lost their jobs. We created a 'Start Your Job Search Here' service with several components.

"The first is staffing a separate 'Jobs Desk' in the middle of the library on weekday afternoons. A reference librarian suggests job Web sites and other career information and talks about the classes and programs we are offering. In the first week, with no advertising, we served over 80 people. Several had tears in their eyes.

"The second component is a checklist for people who have lost their jobs, created by our business specialist Barb Vlk. It outlines six positive actions for job seekers, including how to apply for unemployment, which is a first-time experience for many people in this economic climate.

"The third component is an array of special programs and computer classes. These include support groups, networking opportunities and computer instruction on how to set up a free e-mail account. A class on using LinkedIn for 70 people filled up in three hours.

"To make the library more accessible, staff has volunteered to park in a nearby church parking lot to free up spaces for our customers. Making it a librarywide effort helps both our staff and public see the value of their public library in action."

Linda Weiss, executive director of the Niles Public Library said, "In March, we began a series of 14 workshops and programs called 'How to Survive a Troubled Economy.' This series includes programs and seminars on a variety of topics, including help in finding a job, money-saving and financial issues.

"We have partnered with community businesses, agencies and organizations, and most of this series is being provided at no charge. The response has been very good and we have had a number of calls from other agencies and organizations who would like to present something as part of the series. We will continue this effort through this year."

Many area libraries have partnered with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago for Money Smart Week, a series of free classes and activities designed to help consumers better manage their personal finances. For a list of participating North suburban organizations and events, visit chicagofed.org.

Several libraries have had a Food for Fines program, donating collected food to local food pantries. The Algonquin Area Public Library had a fines amnesty.

"The amnesty allowed individuals and families that have incurred fines to clear their records and once again have access to our great collection of books and audio/visual products," Executive Director Randall Vlcek said.

Woman's Day magazine is soliciting testimonials from library users around the nation regarding how the library helped them in hard times. Four winners will be chosen and featured in Woman's Day next March.

Read all about it at womansday.com/Articles/Family-Lifestyle/ALA-Contest-Info-Rules.html.

Listen to my interview with Jane Chesnutt, editor-in-chief of Woman's Day, and hear her describe the program at librarybeat.org/longshots.