A few weekends ago, you couldn't find a seat in the downtown library's auditorium.

More than 250 folks had come in to watch the Met Opera perform "Aida" in hi-def -- a nearly four-hour proposition, not including the time they spent there beforehand (they come in early to get good seats).

Not 20 feet away from the auditorium, in the children's department, there was a party going on. A couple dozen little girls dressed up like storybook characters -- fancy dresses and all -- were having the time of their lives.

"They were the most adorable things you'd ever seen," says Sara Breibart, who's worked at the library for 30 years.

While all this was happening, people were coming in to pick up weekend movies, there were a couple of folks lounging around reading magazines, and a group upstairs was getting help with their tax forms.

A nice day at the Main Branch of the Charleston County Public Library. The most amazing thing about it is that it was a pretty typical Saturday.

Well, that and it's all free.

More use, less $$$

As of Thursday, the downtown library started closing an hour early. On top of that, the bigger branches -- which have their own programs -- are now going to be closed on Sunday.

Budget cuts and layoffs, they say. It's the economy, stupid.

It's the same most everywhere. Dorchester and Berkeley libraries have lost more than $50,000 each in funding over the last year. But Charleston County's library has lost more than $600,000.

The irony is that because of the economy --and the state's embarrassing double-digit unemployment rate -- more people are using the library than ever before. In the past couple of years, Dorchester County's library usage is up 14 percent, Berkeley libraries are seeing 25 percent more folks, and traffic has increased in Charleston branches by 12 percent.

A lot of people come in for the free Internet or DVDs. But a lot of them are lured out by the free entertainment that Breibart plans -- the Great Books Discussions, the "Let's Talk About It" book clubs, and the film series.

Those are the kinds of things that make Charleston such a culturally rich community, and they are a necessary part of the local vibe.

So far they are surviving, in part because of Humanities Council grants and the hard work of folks like Breibart.

So far, the budget Scrooges have not cut this deep.

A long-term investment

Some of these Scrooges will tell you that government shouldn't pay for anything but police and fire services, maybe garbage pick-up.

A lot of them don't even want to pay for schools, so it's no surprise that they don't see the benefits of a healthy library.

A good library -- and Charleston has a great one -- introduces people to all those things that are important in life. You hope that you never have a need for the police or fire department, but everyone should want to make good use of free books.

Breibart knows this all too well. Although she plans events largely for senior citizens, she sees the programs for children -- like the dress-up party for those little girls -- as the library's most important work.

"If I could get those young people interested and get them watching opera, they'd be hooked for life," she says.

Not only would that continue Charleston's rich cultural heritage, but it could ensure the next generation values the library more than some Scrooges do today.