Check it out: Library's hip, economical

Juanita Magana browses Tuesday through the DVD racks at the the Charleston County Public Library's Calhoun Street branch. Magana is among an increasing number of people using the library's DVDs, books and computers.

About six months ago, Juanita Magana started checking out the movies at the downtown library.

She got the idea from her sister, who was looking for ways to save a few bucks here, a few bucks there. It made perfect sense: Drop $4 for a movie at the video store, or borrow it for a week — for free?

No contest.

"It's exactly the same distance from Blockbuster, and you don't have to pay for it," she said while browsing the racks at the main branch of the Charleston County Public Library on Calhoun Street. "It's just cheaper to come down here."

As the economy took its swan dive into recession, more and more people began to rediscover the public library. Now, they're borrowing books instead of buying them, checking out movies instead of renting them, and using free Internet when money problems force them to go truly wireless.

They are finding a new world of reference desk help, offering tips on everything from writing resumes to grant requests, to classes on the newest computer software. Some even help with tax preparation. Suddenly, the library is hip.

Besides, you've got to love a place that can give you both Dickens and "Die Hard."

"It's just a great resource," said Christy Heady, who said she's using the library probably 50 percent more than she used to. "It's a good place to pick up DVDs for the kids."

All across the Lowcountry, more people are using public libraries. Charleston has seen a 12 percent jump in circulation, Dorchester's libraries are up 14, and Berkeley has seen a 25 percent increase. At the same time, Berkeley has lost $67,000 in funding, Dorchester has lost $50,000, and Charleston is down nearly half a million in county and state funding combined.

Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association, said it is a great irony: Just as more people discover the wonders of the public library, public money to libraries is down.

"Definitely we're seeing a pattern," said Rettig, who also is a librarian at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "But there is a different wrinkle. Society now depends on the Internet — some states require it to apply for unemployment benefits. And in 73 percent of the country, the only place you can have free Internet access is the public library."

Computers are bigger than Chekhov at libraries these days. At the 16 branches of the Charleston County Public Library, the computers stay filled all day with folks checking e-mail, filling out job applications, looking for work or doing their homework.

In Dorchester County, library director Frank Bruno said the demand is so high they've had to limit folks to 30 minutes, down from two hours. At many libraries, people stand in line to get to a computer.

"A lot of people are doing their resumes here," said Misty Jones, assistant reference manager at the Charleston County Public Library.

Jones spends a lot of her time helping nonprofits find grants and other sources of money, a necessity at a time when governments are cutting back. Rettig said that is one of the undiscovered truths about libraries: They offer services for small businesses and nonprofits that are irreplaceable.

"One of the things people don't understand is how much libraries contribute to economic development and growth in a community," he said.

Another great irony: All these library services have been available for years, a service to taxpayers that few have taken advantage of in the past. Most librarians just shake their heads when asked the obvious question: Why?

"I think most people need to have a certain reason to come in," said Cynthia Bledsoe, acting director of the Charleston Library. "We are a community resource, not a vault with books that are kept under lock and key. We want people to come in and use us."

It seems that a lean year can teach people a lot of new tricks. John Brennan checks out cable TV series at the library instead of paying a big cable bill, and Becky Melancon, the reference services coordinator, said that some people have discovered new and creative uses for the Interlibrary Loan program, a nationwide cooperative most often used by researchers looking for rare books.

Now folks are using it for movies.

"Rather than using Netflix, they use the Interlibrary Loan," she said.