Click here to view in a gallery.
ELKHART -- The line forms outside Pierre Moran Library here each Sunday well before it opens and the jobless jockey for position to lay claim to a computer inside.
"I don't know anywhere else you can go to get on the Internet for free," explained Don, an unemployed forklift operator and one of those waiting in the chill to get inside last Sunday.
Computer use at Elkhart libraries is booming as the growing contingent of unemployed seeks a place to file their online jobless claims with the state Department of Workforce Development. It's probably the most obvious manifestation of a jump in demand for library services brought on by the weak economy. But there are other indicators too -- increased DVD and book checkouts at some Elkhart Public Library branches, for instance, librarians say.
"You can come and borrow a book or movie for free," explained Pierre Moran branch manager Marcia Vierck. "It gives (the public) a place to go that isn't going to charge them."
Beth Pomeroy, manager of the Cleveland branch, reports an upswing in home-schooled kids and their parents using library resources and programs.
Chuck Pieri, manager of the Osolo branch, says the upswing in use underscores the importance of libraries as community centers. Though the unemployed filing online jobless claims account for much of the increased traffic, they sometimes bring their families and end up browsing the stacks for books and DVDs. Others use the library as a getaway, a quiet place to take a break from the job hunt to read a magazine or newspaper.
"Now they're discovering the library again," Pieri said. "I'm just happy we can be helpful for people."
The increased usage isn't without its downside. Sometimes library staffers get questions from people who have little to no familiarity with computers.
"Some don't even know how to use a mouse, which is really a problem," said Pierre Moran librarian Beth DeBoni, speaking amid the rush of customers after the branch opened Sunday. "Some of them don't even know how to type."
Staffers do what they can -- the library offers classes and labs -- but Connie Ozinga, director of the Elkhart system, said there are limits given the varied demands her employees face. "We're not able to sit down with them and walk them through the process," she said.
She also notes the likely change in Indiana Family and Social Services Administration rules that would let seekers of food stamps, Medicaid and other social services apply online for the services for the first time. That could create yet another pool of computer users at the library, adding to the pressure.
'NO SENSE PAYING'
The line outside Pierre Moran last Sunday was forming 20 minutes before the library's 1 p.m. opening. It's been that way since last fall, when the layoffs here really started to add up, according to Ozinga.
Don, the unemployed forklift operator, has been a regular of late and he pointed out some familiar faces among the crowd as he waited for the doors to open.
"He's usually here -- him, me and some other people," said the man, who did not want to give his last name.
He said Sunday is so busy because it's the first day the jobless can file for claims for the coming week. If you file Sunday, you can usually have your benefits on Monday. Beyond that, it's quicker to file online than go to the local Department of Workforce Development office.
When the doors finally opened, the assembled crowd entered the cramped library, with most making a beeline to the computers. Those less electronically inclined sought help from people waiting in the line behind them, while others sat on chairs placed in the library to accommodate the influx.
Lisa -- she was waiting to file for her jobless benefits and didn't want to give her last name either -- said the library is so important for many people because they don't have anywhere else they can access the Internet. The computer access is also useful in searching for jobs, while DVDs provide entertainment for free.
"We get movies," she said. "No sense paying for them when you can come in and get them for free."