Banks may be folding and jobs vanishing, but local libraries are booming. ¶ Already popular as a place for homework, research and story time, libraries are now bursting at the seams with money-pinched families seeking free entertainment, jobless adults looking for work, and cash-strapped consumers who've dropped home Internet service and stopped buying books. ¶ "More people are walking in the doors,'' said Teresa Jensen, principal librarian at Hennepin County's Southdale Library. "This last Sunday, the library was absolutely packed with people.''

In Ramsey County libraries, computer use was up 38 percent last year from 2007. Use of the wireless network was up 61 percent. And attendance in computer classes was up 24 percent.

"I think people are struggling, and we are a great value,'' said Susan Nemitz, Ramsey County Library director.

Longtime super-users like Heidi Ohlander -- the 31-year-old Eagan resident checks out 100 to 200 books a year from libraries across Dakota, Hennepin and Ramsey counties -- have been joined by new patrons such as Ray Johnson of St. Paul, an engineer laid off at Thanksgiving.

Johnson, who notes that he has "a lot of time on my hands," takes his own laptop to the Southdale Library once a week and taps into the library's Wi-Fi connection, which he uses to research commodity pricing to better understand how inflation works. He also finds the libraries' newspaper archives are excellent sources. "I can get commodity prices back to the 1800s,'' he said.

But Ohlander worries that the library services she loves -- and depends on -- might be cut because of mounting budget woes at the state and local levels. She recently implored her legislators not to reduce funding:

"I just want you to know that the library is not only essential to me but to all my fellow Minnesotans,'' she wrote. "Libraries are the place Minnesotans turn to during tough times."

With library help, Ohlander said, she was able to plan her own wedding, start a small business, master her digital camera, lose 50 pounds, become a better blogger and begin her first novel.

Budget cuts could curb hours

For now, city and county librarians are waiting to see how much Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators will cut state aid to local government in the face of a $6 billion to $7 billion deficit for the two-year budget period that starts July 1.

In St. Paul, all city departments are preparing plans to cut spending by 14 percent. For the city's 13 libraries, that would mean a loss of more than $2 million from a $17 million operating budget. One library would be closed and all libraries except the central library would see their hours cut -- some would be open only 48 hours instead of 63 hours per week. Library director Melanie Huggins said she anticipates that the cuts will be "unprecedented."

"We are not talking about a problem that is just for 2009. It's going to be bad next year, too,'' she said.

Ramsey County libraries are already understaffed, Nemitz said. "We are watching closely what the Legislature does. Economic conditions have not hit their bottom, so we remain deeply concerned about our future.''

Hennepin County has imposed a hiring freeze, has restricted travel and is reviewing options to start making some budget cuts in March, said county administrator Richard Johnson.

"We are revisiting every budget. We will be looking at all departments,'' including libraries, he said.

Hennepin's suburban libraries merged with Minneapolis city libraries last year. Their combined budget for 2009 is $73.8 million -- about 4 percent of the county's total budget, Johnson said.

Heeding demand, Hennepin County last year re-opened three Minneapolis libraries that had been closed due to city budget pressures and opened 13 more libraries on Sundays. In the face of rising demand, it would not be easy for commissioners to cut back on library services, Johnson said.

"Where else can you walk out with six books under your arm?" Johnson asked. "What every board member is hearing is that people love their libraries.''

Growth in good times and bad

Even before the economy faltered, library use was climbing. Circulation at Hennepin County's suburban libraries grew 23 percent from 10.6 million in 2000 to 13 million in 2008. In Minneapolis, the increase was even sharper -- up 37 percent, from 2.7 million to 3.7 million, during that nine-year period.

"The end of libraries has been predicted since radio came and movies came, and the Internet was going to be the end of libraries," said Lois Langer Thompson, the new director of the Hennepin County Library system.

But libraries keep thriving because, while their core mission -- connecting people with information -- hasn't changed, "We have changed how we do it," Thompson said.

They can meet the needs of a library user like 16-year-old Khalil Dykes of Richfield, who does his homework at Southdale three or four times a week. He uses the library computers to tap into his school website, and when his homework is finished, he chats online with friends.

And the Southdale Library can also meet the demands of a user like Dave Hintermeister of Richfield, who takes his young daughters to the library every other week.

"It's a relaxed atmosphere,'' he said. "It's fun to spend an hour here with the kids and not have to spend much money.''

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711