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Library a magnet for job seekers

BRADENTON — At the Manatee Central Library, a display in the lobby reflects the current condition of the nation’s job market. Books on job searching, resume writing and interviewing tips rest atop a table and carts.

The display, which runs along the side of the staircase, is a reference section of sorts for employment assistance — a taxing and growing need based on Manatee’s record high unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.

The recession has brought an increasing number of people through the county’s library system for employment-related needs. Library cardholders’ interests are no longer a matter of fiction or non-fiction, they’re putting their memberships to use to fill out job applications, write resumes, file for unemployment benefits or apply for food stamps.

This past fiscal year, which ended in October, the annual attendance for the county’s libraries was 977,691 and Internet usage increased from 203,258 users in 2007 to 215,064 last year.

“Things like that are significant,” said John Van Berkel, library services manager.

Bradenton resident Pat Wynn is among the 12,550 jobless in Manatee County. On Tuesday afternoon, he was on the second floor of the Manatee Central Library scanning job ads as he has done at least twice a week since July when he was let go by Northside Auto Parts in Palmetto.

“I come right up here to the computers and start going to work,” Wynn said.

However, one of the 57 computers in the six library facilities in the county isn’t always readily available. Because of increased demand, the libraries have implemented a computer sign-in system in which users register their name, receive a number, and then wait.

And when their numbers are called, each user is restricted to 30 minutes.

“If I’m here on a Thursday or Friday when it’s not very busy and nobody’s waiting, they’ll automatically extend my time another half an hour,” Wynn, 51, said. “If there’s a line, I put my name back in the system and get another number.”

Marion Hayes, supervisor of the Adult Service Department for the county’s public library system, said the waiting system is the best way to ensure that everyone has a chance to use the computers.

“The increase has become so noticeable and prominent that it’s got basically all the supervisors and adult services staff talking about ways we can try to accommodate this increased demand,” Hayes said.

The increased attendance and usage have challenged the library system, a victim of financial constraints itself.

In anticipation of an $18 million reduction in property tax revenue for Manatee County, county officials reduced library hours and positions last year.

The county reduced operating hours for the libraries from 228 hours a week to 199 hours a week.

The main library on Barcarrotta Boulevard saw the smallest decline, with hours reduced from 63 to 60 hours.

In addition, 12 positions were eliminated from the budget, leaving 65 staff members.

“At the same time that our hours have had to decrease, people’s needs have increased,” said Judy Mullen, assistant branch supervisor of the Braden River Branch Library. “And with our staff numbers, it’s not always possible to give people the attention they need when there are crowds of people waiting.”

One solution the library implemented recently was pulling out all of its job-help related periodicals for easy access. It also compiled fliers that point job seekers to popular Web sites for job listings and resume writing.

Jessica Baughman, 32, says the materials at the library have been helpful in guiding her job search. However, the mother of three is still searching for a job after five months out of work.

Baughman, who is returning from maternity leave, is finding it difficult to get a position at a fast-food restaurant despite 17 years of experience in the industry.

“I think they try to hire the younger ones because they probably don’t have to pay them that much,” Baughman said. “But right now I would take anything.”