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Story Retrieval Date: 11/24/2014 2:13:26 PM CST

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Catherine Ngai/MEDILL

Janice Classen has been using Chicago library services to look for a job for over a year, and is grateful for all the help she's received.

Chicago job seekers move 'offices' from coffee shops to libraries

by Catherine Ngai
Aug 11, 2010


Catherine Ngai/MEDILL

As the CyberNavigator at Harold Washington Library Center in the loop, Zachary McMahon, 32, says the most rewarding aspect of his job is seeing people get excited to learn something new.

A change in scenery is said to help change one’s outlook on life. More Chicago residents have embraced this mentality full on as high levels of joblessness continues, exchanging their comfortable seats at the local coffee shop for library cards and free Wi-Fi.

“You used to go to Starbucks, but now you go to the library and see laptop after laptop perched,” said Ruth Lednicer, director of marketing at the Chicago Public Library. “Our roles in people’s lives are increasing. They’re reevaluating their expenses and seeing that they can get things at the library for free, like Wi-Fi.”

The number of active card holders jumped to 1.82 million as of December 2009, an increase of approximately 8 percent from 2008, according to the Chicago Public Library.

With Starbucks Corp. offering free Wi-Fi as of July, joining Caribou Coffee Company Inc. and McDonalds Corp., it's not just the free Internet access that's driving more people to the library, according to Lednicer. She estimates that about 60 percent of Internet use there is related to job-hunting, and the library has a program to help.

The program, "CyberNavigators," was started in 2008 and provides part-time staffers to help job-seekers apply for unemployment insurance, write resumes or set up new email accounts.

Laid off after 25 years as a legal secretary, Janice Classen, 69, visits Harold Washington Library Center daily to network and job-search on the computers. When she got laid off, Classen started getting help from people at the library on how to refine her resume and learn to job-search. While she understands that the job market has worsened, she is hopeful.

“I haven’t given up. I can’t,” she said. “I have goals. I’m constantly doing searches on these job sites.”

The unemployment situation in Cook County is among the worst in the nation. The region lost 111,100 jobs from December 2008 to December 2009, placing it third in the number of jobs lost out of a list of the 334 largest counties in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Chicago metropolitan-area unemployment rate dropped year-over-year in June for the first time in 38 months to 10.6 percent from 10.9 percent, the Illinois Department of Employment Security reported in July.

The number of people using the CyberNavigator program also shows how unemployment is affecting the city. The number of patrons who sought such help increased approximately 10 percent to 24,173 in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period in the prior year, even though library hours were reduced because of budget cuts.

“In some places, the library is the only place where people get Internet. That’s where the need for the…program arises,” said Roberto Pang, program manager. “Every two weeks, my CyberNavigators send me their statistics. From that, I can see the trend going higher on resume and job applications.”

However, even the library is not completely immune to the nation’s financial woes. Currently, there aren't enough cyber-helpers to go around. Only 42 of the 74 branches in the Chicago Public Library are staffed with cyber-helpers due to funding shortages.

“It’s a balancing act,” Lednicer said. “But we in Chicago have been very fortunate. Libraries in Boston, Charlotte or New York City had to close branches and cut staff. A year ago, we lost about 10 percent of our staff, and reduced hours from 12 to eight. They [the patrons] understand.”

Having worked as a CyberNavigator for approximately 14 months, Matthew Jensen, 28, has seen an upward swing in the number of people who need job help. Based at the Chicago Legler branch,115 South Pulaski Road, he said he can meet with as many as 10 to 12 people during a four to five hour shift.

“You have to convince people that they won’t break the computer,” said Jensen, who is currently studying for his Master of Library and Information Science degree at the University of Illinois. “People get intimidated by computers because they are worth a lot of money.”

He says most of the job-seekers he’s worked with are applying to food service, security or warehouse management jobs.

“The thing about job searches is that even though you may never see a computer on the job, you have to apply for the job online,” Jensen said.