The credit card is practically maxed out, the Netflix subscription is looking more and more like a luxury, and — who knows? — the cable television and high-speed Internet service may have to go, too, if things don't improve.

Times are increasingly tough all across America, and everyday entertainment expenses are often among the first to be trimmed. But people can't sit around in the dark all evening — not unless they can't pay the power bill, either.

It's times like these when the public library comes in handy. Yes, that place you haven't visited since you were researching that 10th-grade term paper on the Roman Empire.

Turns out libraries are reliable barometers of the economy. National studies by the American Library Association have confirmed that when there's a downturn in the overall economic picture, there's a boost in traffic at the library.

That's precisely what is happening across the country, Kern County included. Diane Duquette, the county's director of libraries, reports that the uptick in interest more or less corresponds with the downtick in everything else.

Circulation — that's the volume of books and other loaned items patrons are checking out — was up 10 percent from fiscal 2006-07 to fiscal '07-08, an astounding leap. In the last fiscal quarter, traffic jumped even higher — to 19 percent over the same three-month period last year.

"We've never had that kind of increase before. Wow. In my time here we've had maybe a 1 percent or 2 percent increase in good years," Duquette says. She has plenty of basis for comparison, too: She's has been running the county's library system for 22 years, and she's been in the public library for a total of 28.

There's so much interest in the library, patrons are having trouble getting their hands on the newest additions, especially the best-sellers. But there's plenty to choose from in the aisles less traveled. DVDs are hot items too, even if "new releases" is a foreign concept.

The increase in traffic isn't attributable merely to patrons in search of entertainment. Computer use is up, largely because people are writing resumes and conducting job searches. Computer traffic was up 8 percent between June and September, but many libraries around the country have reported double digit growth in computer usage since the economy slowed down.

People save money by canceling subscriptions and reading library copies of periodicals, a factor very much in evidence in Kern County libraries, where patrons have almost doubled their use of subscription databases, to 194 percent.

And libraries could soon start getting even busier. School districts will be forced to make extracurricular cuts early next year, due primarily to the Legislature's inability to govern competently in the face of outright crisis. When after-school programs are cut, parents often send their children to libraries, which beats allowing them to roam the streets.

If the bad economy helps reintroduce people to their libraries, that's a nice silver lining. But if the doors are locked, what then? Kern County libraries aren't able to serve the community on the same level as other counties around California. Local libraries have only 1.2 books per capita, a little better than half the statewide mean of 2.2 books per person. Annual hours of operation are barely two-thirds of the statewide average, and the ratio of library employees to population is stunningly inadequate — half the state average and less than a third of the national average.

Unlike in the private sector, counties can't cite increased traffic to justify increasing theirs staffs, their merchandise or their hours of operation to meet demand. In fact, given the condition of the state budget, it's more likely things will head in the other direction.

That looks like a national trend. The annual federal appropriation for libraries may be cut this year. Thing is, collectively, libraries represent a vital public agency. We need them more than ever in this economy. Libraries are not extravagances. They're outright necessities.

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