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Job Seekers Flock to Libraries

GREENVILLE, S.C. - When Leona Thompson's job as a housekeeper dwindled to just a few clients earlier this year, she had to pull the plug on her home Internet service, just when she needed it to search for a new job.

The Greenville County Library, which has a branch near her home, offered a solution. But with so many job seekers in the same situation, Thompson, 53, found she usually had to wait 20 minutes or more to get a seat in front of a computer at the Greenville West Branch.

Once she did, she had to work fast, because she knew she might get cut off after an hour if someone was waiting behind her.

"So many places now, you have to do your application on the computer," says Thompson, who says she got an offer for a full-time nurses' aide position and was back at the library last week filling out paperwork.

Libraries across the USA are filling up with people waiting to get online to fill out applications, write resumes or look for job openings, a national study by the American Library Association shows.

"Libraries are really the first responder in this economic crisis, and particularly for job seekers," says Larra Clark, who managed the study due for release Sept. 15.

Eight out of 10 libraries nationally have someone on a computer waiting list at some point during the day, Clark says. At the beginning of 2007, before the economy took a nosedive, 44% of libraries nationally said assisting job seekers was a "critical use" of their library, she says. Now, it's 67%.

The increased demand comes in a year when 22 states have cut funding for libraries, Clark says.

"There's a lot of people to serve and in some cases fewer hours to serve them," she says.

Libraries are taking a variety of approaches to meet the need:

The Waltham Public Library, in the suburbs of Boston, loans laptops to patrons for wireless use inside the building. Its five laptops have been loaned more than 1,000 times since the program began three months ago, said Kate Tranquada, library director.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore is offering classes on topics such as resume-writing and interviewing. The program has seen a 92% increase in participation since this time last year, said Roswell Encina, director of communications.

The Hollywood Library in Portland, Ore., rolls computers into a meeting room two days a week to set up a makeshift computer lab for job seekers, said Larry Randall, adult services librarian.

The Simi Valley Library in Ventura County, Calif., has set up a kiosk to give job seekers touch-screen access to information on local jobs, career centers and Internet resources, said Daniel Cutcher, reference librarian.

Data for the study were gathered and analyzed from September 2008 to April 2009. The report surveyed 5,907 libraries and received 4,303 responses (72.8, Clark says.

More than seven out of 10 libraries say they're the only place that offers public access to the Internet in their community, Clark says. Nationally, 38% of households had no Internet connection in 2007, according to U.S. Census figures released in June.

"Some people are choosing not to renew their Internet at home. Other people, there is no computer at home," says Trinity Behrends, communications manager for the Greenville County Library System.

Reginald Ellison of Greenville, a 41-year-old father of a University of South Carolina student and a high school junior, has been out of work since last September. He says he goes to the library three or four times a week to use the computers to look for work.

"If you don't have a computer at home, you're pretty much stuck," he says.

The demand is stretching some libraries' resources to the limits.

Susan Moser, Greenville West branch manager, says she has had up to 16 people waiting to use one of the library's 13 computers.

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