You hear a lot of talking in local libraries nowadays. What you don't hear is a lot of shushing.
Libraries are becoming community centers, where people come to meet and chat, says Frederick Schlipf of the Urbana Free Library. Both Champaign and Urbana are considering adding coffee shops to their new facilities.
In these draggy economic times, a place with free admission, free book and video checkouts and free Internet access looks pretty good - so much so that use is up dramatically.
Library director Schlipf said the pace has been picking up in the last year and a half, right about the same time it went up all over the nation.
A University of Illinois study commissioned by the American Library Foundation found that at 18 large libraries, circulation has increased significantly since March 2001, when the federal government declared the nation in recession.
The Internet has not killed libraries - it has made them more essential, as some workers find it hard to find the $20 or more a month most services charge for access.
Schlipf said library use continues to grow, with users taking out 22 items per capita.
In the first 10 months of 2002, before library renovation work began, 683,544 items were circulated at the Urbana Free Library.
In the same period in 2001, the number was 648,221. From November 2001 to October 2002, the number is 810,625.
Cele Gaines of the Champaign Public Library said total circulation is up for each of the past four fiscal years, in the year beginning July 1998, 1,059,293; beginning July 1999, 1,065,004; July 2000, 1,140,324; and July 2001, 1,262,142.
Leigh Estabrook, the director of the UI Library Research Center, said those figures don't surprise her.
?What we were testing has been suggested for decades; it was noticed in the Depression,? she said. ?There are all sorts of reasons why library use picks up during harsh economies: The jobless are looking for work, others desire a career change for personal and professional development. They use a li-brary's resources, including on-line things like monster.com.?
Do-it-yourself activity also picks up during ungenerous times, she said.
?Whether it means doing car repair on your own, where you want extensive access to car repair manuals, or any number of other things, the library has access to expensive books and other tools,? she said.
The entertainment and educational value of the library are also available at minimal or no cost, she added.
?Libraries have a lot of cultural events scheduled, well be-yond story hours for kids. They're a common site for political debates or speeches, as we know from Matthew Hale,? the white supremacist leader - whose sessions at Champaign's library caused controversy.
But hard times are also hard on public libraries, and increased use does not necessarily entail increased funding, Estabrook said.
?Libraries are traditionally supported by local governments,? she said, noting that Andrew Carnegie, who created many town libraries, made it a condition of his gift that continued funding be at the local level.
But local governments can have hard times when they lose sales taxes during downturns. And inequalities can exist when some suburbs are made up almost exclusively of the upper middle class, and nearby cities concentrate the poor.
?If you rely solely on local funds, rich communities will have rich schools, as well as rich libraries,? she said. ?Illinois is quite progressive because of a statewide library system, which offers consulting and support, but finally it is the local government that determines funding.?
Paul Berg, the interim director of the Champaign public library, said libraries have learned they can't rely on tax funding and overdue revenues to keep up today.
?For the new library,? he said, ?we know that there will have to be some level of private fund-raising. We'll need to blend public and private funds; difficulties in the economy might require multiyear plans.?
?We have to be very economical,? he said. ?We do it on a modest budget - it's good for our size, but low for our output.?
Library use, and costs, will probably continue to increase as libraries change from inner sanctums of learning to community centers, he said.
?An awful lot of people meet in libraries; they're increasingly community centers. People sort of bundle up at home with computers. When they come to the library, they want to meet people,? Schlipf said.
That's why he favors the idea of coffee shops, whether they're money-makers or not.
?My impression is that coffee shops are not big sources of cash - the main things is they make a store or library a cozier, friendlier, warmer place. I've consulted on 50 library construction projects, and almost everyone has at least considered the idea of a coffee shop,? Schlipf said.
?We have some space in the building plan we have reserved for that possibility. It's consistent with feedback from the citizens group.?