On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, just a few minutes before 1 o'clock, the entrance to the Central Library on Poplar looked like Walmart on the day after Thanksgiving.
A crowd of maybe 50 people — men, women, and families — stood under the library awning, waiting for the doors to open. In the parking lot, other people waited in their cars, keeping a keen eye on the entrance.
Soon the doors opened, and the crowd swarmed in, many heading up the stairs to the computers on the second floor, others jostling for position in front of "7 Day" books in the popular reading section on the first floor.
Like many libraries across the country, the Memphis Public Library has experienced an uptick in usage in recent months. In fact, 40,000 more customers came through the local library system's doors between October and December 2008 than did during that same time the year before.
Use of materials is also up by a third for the same period, and the number of library-card applicants increased by 4 percent compared to last year.
The story is the same nationwide: In December, NBC Nightly News reported that more Americans have library cards now than anytime since the American Library Association began keeping track. Even more recently, The Boston Globe, in a piece about an increase in the number of visits to the Boston Public Library, called it a "recession sanctuary."
Memphis librarian Jane Jacobson would probably agree with the Globe's assessment. A 10-year veteran of the Memphis public library system, Jacobson has seen a 10 percent increase in customers this year at the Cherokee branch library in Southeast Memphis.
"People are still reading," she says, but many of the library's customers come to use the free computers. The branch has 11 computers — eight "hour" computers, which people can use for up to an hour, and three "half-hour" computers.
One recent morning, Jacobson manned the branch's computer desk. All the computers were being used, and by 11:30 a.m., Jacobson only had two computers still available for the noon hour.
"We always have people waiting," she says. "They lack personal computers or, with the increase in online fees, can't afford Internet access at home," she says.
Systemwide, the public library's computer usage is up 7 percent from last year.
"A lot of people come in and apply for jobs," Jacobson says. "They might not be daily computer users, but a lot of places in Memphis only accept job applications over the Internet."
Jacobson also works at the Parkway Village library and says it's the same story there: They've seen an increase in the number of people coming to the library, and patrons are always waiting to use a computer.
And though libraries nationwide are experiencing a resurgence, they, too, are experiencing a recession. In Philadelphia, for instance, the city is preparing to close 11 of its 54 branches.
And, unfortunately, the story may be no different here.
At a meeting of the Kiwanis Club last week, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton said the economy would mean probable cuts to city personnel and services. He also seemed to put libraries and community centers on the chopping block, saying they were less important than police, fire, and fighting blight.
Last year, Herenton tried to close five library branches — including downtown's Cossitt, which he said was embarrassing — and four community centers. He estimated the closures would save the city between $1.5 and $2 million and suggested the city go to larger, regional libraries.
The libraries and community centers were eventually saved by the City Council, but there's no guarantee it wasn't just a one-year reprieve.
If the numbers are any indication, it seems to me that our libraries are more important to citizens than ever before. Not more important than fire or police services, but as important. Fire and police services protect what citizens already have, but it's libraries that possess potential.
Despite — and because of — the economic hardship, it would be a mistake to scale back library services now. But hopefully, that's not the next chapter.