AS LIBRARIES across the nation gear up to celebrate National Library Week next week — April 12-18 — the Oakland Public Library, one of the city's most popular institutions, is no exception.

This year our theme proudly announces that we are Free2all — a proclamation that reminds our community that anyone can walk into our libraries and receive free library services and help. During difficult economic downturns, surveys show that people are turning to libraries in increasing numbers.

A recent Harris Poll for the American Library Association found that library visits are up 10 percent compared with a 2006 ALA survey, and that approximately 68 percent of Americans have a library card.

Here in Oakland, we top that figure — almost 89 percent were registered borrowers in 2008 as compared with 79 percent just two years ago. Circulation, library visits and library computer use have all gone up as well — sometimes in double-digit numbers.

Why is it that during economic hardship people depend on their libraries, and that even during the Great Depression, public libraries survived?

Public libraries like Oakland's are one of the great American equalizers — the only place people of all ages, backgrounds and income levels can freely enter and use a variety of resources and receive guidance from trained information specialists.


As people seek employment, we find more patrons using library Internet computers to find work, apply for jobs online, and type resumes and cover letters. They use our electronic resources to prepare for tests and research local companies.

Parents and students search for financial aid and nonprofits and individuals use the library's considerable resources to find grants.

In Oakland and many other libraries, we provide a wide array of free programs and services that anyone can utilize, such as tax assistance, Lawyers in the Library (a free legal information and referral service), computer training, tool lending, adult literacy tutoring, homework help, story hours, and special programs targeted at helping our community respond to the current economic crisis.

As people cut back on entertainment, we see families and individuals coming more frequently to the library to borrow movies, download audio books, read magazines, take out bestsellers and attend library programs. Teens can be found in our TeenZone where they can play video games on the latest iMacs or relax with a graphic novel. Instead of paying to see entertainers, people can enjoy top names such as Culture Clash, Word for Word, Nikki Giovanni and more — without paying a dime.

Of course, libraries are not really free. Americans pay for the service with their taxes and many libraries depend on supplemental support from their friends and other donors to pay for programming and special materials.

Despite that when the economy is down, library use is up, libraries frequently land on the chopping block just when people rely on them most. But the fact is that libraries are essential to a city's quality of life and, at an annual cost of $54 per capita in Oakland (or roughly the equivalent of the cost of two hard-bound books), they're a tremendous value for our community.

So join us in celebrating National Library Week and your local public library, and help us keep the library Free2all as we navigate through these rough waters.

Carmen L. Martínez is director of Library Services for the Oakland Public Library.