DENVER -- A century after the nation's library building boom, public libraries are under siege: plunging tax revenues are forcing closures and staff cutbacks, while e-readers and the Internet can make a library seem quaint as a place to find a book or do research.
Yet amid severe cutbacks, libraries are finding novel ways to generate money and are rebranding themselves as crucial employment resources for people without computers and as community gathering places that cannot be easily replaced.
"If there's any silver lining in the downturn for libraries, it's that it has really forced us to look at new ways of doing business," said Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. "We can't depend solely on tax dollars anymore."
Library directors are responding to the dwindling support from local governments by charging for premium services, selling passport photos and joining with DVD retailers to offer commercial movie-rental boxes in exchange for a cut of the sales.
In the most extreme examples, some communities have decided to privatize library operations.
On Thursday, the American Library Association meets in New Orleans to begin its annual conference and will address the funding crisis and ways to maintain services.
There's no question libraries face an uncertain future. A 2010 survey by Library Journal showed that 72 percent of surveyed libraries said they faced budget cuts in the previous year, while 43 percent said they had made cuts to staffing. Nearly one in five respondents expressed pessimism about the future of libraries.
Even with the search for new funding sources, the shorter hours, slimmer staffs and declining offerings of books and DVDs have devoted library patrons worried about the future.
"Libraries are everything – opportunities to come read, better yourself, find out what's going on. But these days, it seems no one really cares about all that," said Charles Holt of Denver, a 50-year-old out-of-work cook who walks daily to a library to pass the time and search for a new job.
These days, Holt is walking farther because his closest library branch is now open just four days a week. Budget cuts in Denver threaten to shut his branch and up to half the city's library branches permanently.
He said even in his relatively low-skill field of commercial cooking, he needs the Internet to find work.
"Not everybody has a computer," said Holt, who said even some unemployment benefits require online applications.
Libraries as most Americans know them today are the product of Industrial Age philanthropy. Over a three-decade period that ended in 1919, steel baron Andrew Carnegie donated more than $40 million to build nearly 1,700 libraries in communities across the country, according to the National Park Service.
Almost all public libraries rely on city and county governments to pay for staff, material and maintenance. Some communities have decided it's an expense they no longer can afford.
Fifteen systems have been turned over completely to a private library company, a practice that is opposed by the American Library Association.
In California, the state Legislature is considering a bill to restrict the privatization of public libraries, in part by forcing contractors to show that the change would save money.
The bill was introduced by a Democratic lawmaker from Santa Barbara after he received complaints about declining service and higher fees at libraries in his district that were being operated by a for-profit company.
The company, Library Systems and Services LLC of Germantown, Md., insists it offers communities a good deal by streamlining staffing and offering greater purchasing power for books and other material. Spokeswoman Mia Pezzanite said the company opposes the California legislation.
"We believe it takes away from a city's ability to make choices for their communities," she said, adding that governments retain ownership of the buildings and material.
The bill won narrow approval earlier this month in the state Assembly and is awaiting debate in the Senate.
Outsourcing certain library functions is a more common approach. Some libraries invite for-profit test preparation companies to give basic courses or ask community college professors to lecture on their areas of expertise. Some library systems also are adding revenue by giving patrons the option to pay for new releases or flexible return dates.
A library in Shrewsbury, Mass., even sells sponsorships to keep the library open on Sundays. Businesses that donate $500 get a sign in the lobby highlighting their sponsorship.
A library system in Hayward, Calif., has started a Netflix-like borrowing model in which customers who don't like traditional due dates can keep books or DVDs as long as they like (for $2.99 to $8.99 a month) and simply pick up another when they return the item.
In Oakland, Calif., where city officials are considering budget cuts that could close 14 of 18 branches, librarians have started "story time flash mobs," during which librarians with bullhorns read aloud in public areas to whip up opposition to the cuts.
"I don't understand how someone could not be galvanized by someone saying they're going to close libraries," Oakland librarian Amy Martin said.
In Denver, library staffers are using Twitter to promote community events and are talking up libraries' value as a job-placement center. The city is considering cutting about $2.5 million from the library system's budget next year, forcing about half the branches to close.
"People think the library is dead because of the Internet, but the exact opposite is true. This is where people come to find jobs, to learn how to use computers, to get material for their e-readers," said Diane Lapierre, director of community relations for Denver Public Libraries.
Librarians say that is especially true in a recession because libraries in many towns offer the only free computer and Internet access. In Cincinnati, marketing and programming director Amy Banister said her 40-branch system has been overwhelmed by job-seekers even as budget cuts have reduced hours 10 percent.
The websites for hundreds of public library systems now include online calculators that allow patrons to enter the number of books, DVDs and other materials they use as a way to see how much money the library saves them.
Librarians concede that it's not always easy to demonstrate their value. In Aurora, a Denver suburb that closed nearly half its branches last year, library director Patti Bateman said she doesn't blame local officials who cut her budget. Libraries simply need to show they're essential, she said.
"There are so many difficult choices to make," Bateman said. "You can't say, `Gee, let's cut police.' You need fire protection. You need the roads. You need clean water. But you need libraries, too."