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Libraries up in down economy

Every semester for the past three or four years, more and more students come by my office and ask me for the ISBN -- the publication number -- for the following term's books.

Out of necessity, it seems, online searches for textbooks have become quite popular. Students are thrilled to save a few bucks, and the post office is glad for the business.

A win-win, especially when cutting back has become a national pastime.

Believe it or not, even friends and colleagues talk about how shrinking household budgets affect their book buying (I know, I know, but to readers, this isn't nearly as boring as it sounds ...).

One friend, in particular, haunts the bookstores in Tallahassee, browsing the shelves, sipping a cup of coffee in the ubiquitous cafes, spending a little time just hiding from the world.

But lately, she's taken to staying home, lurking on some of the many book sites that vie for her attention, coming up with wish lists, working the angles.

And maybe, just maybe, buying a book or two.

"Why don't you spend as much time at Borders as you used to?" I ask her. "You know, you don't need to buy something every single time you stop in."

I'm not saying this out of any concern for her, mind you. I just want to hear the indignant reply.

She doesn't disappoint.

"Don't tell a reader that she doesn't need to buy something every time she goes out to the bookstore," my friend scoffs. "If you've ever had a real passion for books, you know that's like telling someone stranded at sea not to drink the saltwater."

I forgive her the strained analogy and shrug. I know what she means. Book people-like dog and cat people-march to their own beat.

And to book people, even in a down economy, the only thing worse than compulsively buying books is not buying them.

These days, when I'm not on campus (and quite thankful for the fine library that we have at Bainbridge College), I spend quite a bit of time in the Leon County Public Library in Tallahassee.

Contacts there and in the Decatur County Public Library in Bainbridge tell me that the number of visitors is up significantly over the last year and circulation through the roof.

Your tax dollars at work -- in a good way.

An American Library Association fact sheet gives concrete numbers that, when I saw them, surprised me.

More than two-thirds (68 percent) of all Americans have a library card and three-quarters (76 percent) have used their public library in the last year.

More than 90 percent see the library system in their community as an important educational resource.

But if you spend a lot of time online and would rather not leave the comfort of your favorite computer chair, you're still in luck. A number of sites catering to bibliophiles have sprung up, and their success will likely spawn even more of the same in the near future.

A couple of my favorites?

Paperback Swap (www.paperbackswap.com) is a good place to start if, like me, you have limited space on your bookshelves and follow a one-book-in-one-book-out policy (a self-imposed rule that I only occasionally follow).

A trading site, Paperback Swap asks members to list the books that they're willing to part with and to wait for another member to request an item from your list. When the book's received on the other end, the sender gets a credit that can be used for any book in stock from any member.

According to the Web site, members currently list more than 4 million books, and savings to date total more than $17 million.

Simple, straightforward, convenient-in short, a group of serious readers with a common goal.

Of course, Amazon is a no-brainer for both new and used books. But my favorite has got to be ABE (formerly Advanced Book Exchange; find the site at www.abebooks.com), which has a stunning array of books for sale-more than 100 million, in fact, from more than 12,000 booksellers.

Talk about bringing the world into your home!

In fact, I was looking for a copy of the "Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook" by Chef Chris Hastings, owner and executive chef of the restaurant of the same name in Birmingham, Ala.

ABE lists 24 entries. A copy in fine condition will run me about a third of the $35.00 cover price.

Even in a down economy, I can't pass that up!

Patrick A. Smith, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at Bainbridge College.