By SHALWAH EVANS
At 2 p.m. on a Thursday the library at 24th and Bartlett, off Mission Street, is bustling. One young boy plays his video game on silent mode with an open book near him on the table. A little girl carries a stack of family magazines to a table with an older gentleman. Almost all of the computers are occupied, and some patrons have brought their own to work on.
Increasingly, it’s not simply students researching term papers or the bookish and retired using the Mission District library, but the unemployed and residents without an internet connection at home. The Mission branch, which has been experiencing a steady increase in use of a little more than 13 percent a year since its rennovation in 1999, had the highest number of newly registered patrons last year—3, 884.
While the city’s plans to offer free citywide WiFi have stalled, the libraries have jumped in to connect the unconnected. All branches in the city offer free WiFi, including the Mission branch, which has been connected for four years.
“You just bring your computer, hook it up, and start using it. That’s it,” said Oscar Caballeros a Mission resident, referring to the free WiFi service. “Some days I spend the whole day here using the internet. I don’t pay.”
For residents like Caballeros, who said it’s too expensive to pay for internet service at home, the library is essential. Unlike many of the coffee shops in the neighborhood where you need to make a purchase to use the internet, the library also has outlets to plug in personal computers.
The Wi-Fi has been especially important as a growing number of unemployed residents are going to the library for help on finding work.
“A lot of people ask where they can go to look for a job,” said Isabel Degadillo-Romo, a branch manager. “I usually tell them to look at Craigslist.”
Degadillo-Romo said there’s been an increase in people asking for test books for civil service and post office jobs. She said she also refers people to the main library which has a career center and offers weekly job search workshops. Other than that, it’s browse the web and look through the newspapers that they have everyday. She said she’s also noticed more people typing, photocopying and e-mailing resumes.
Ian Matthew, who lives a few blocks away, studied for his Chartered Financial Analyst exam there.
“This is the first time I’m studying here. It’s a little odd,” he said.
Several feet away a woman looked through Sing Tao Daily newspapers in search of a job. It was also her first time at that library.
Steven Cady, the Southeast District Branch Manager, said books too are popular in the midst of the country’s economic downturn and green movement.
“It’s always been a resource for people. You just can’t keep everything you read,” he said. “You really don’t want to buy them and keep them in your library.
Of the city’s 29 branches the Mission had the fourth highest number of visits in the 2007-2008 fiscal year after Chinatown, West Portal and the Sunset District. Some 241,451 patrons walked through the doors and 442,429 books and DVDs were checked out.
Cady said lots of patrons also take advantage of their program in which the library can get a movie as soon as it becomes available on DVD.
“I had one woman come in one day and she said they didn’t have cable, so they just came to the library and got these TV series and they’d just watch those sequentially from DVDs. People could watch the whole series of Sopranos,” he continued.
Cady said that recently they’ve also been making moves to market the library more. They offer basic computer skills and email classes in both Spanish and English, and had a bookmobile float in the recent Carnaval parade. They also work with City College ESL classes to show them what resources are available.
But it’s difficult to determine who packs the place on any random day. Delgadillo-Romo said its proximity to the 24th Street BART station a block away, has also helped its numbers.
So far, she said, no hours or programs have been cut. Cady said he anticipates some layoffs in the system, but doesn’t think that library hours will change.
“It’s a focus for the community with a lot of resources,” he said.