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Jobless take stock at the library: Futures? Down

February 03, 2003|GERALDINE BAUM

The unemployment line in New York sometimes starts on the fourth floor of the Mid-Manhattan Library. There are computers there with Internet connections to search job Web sites. The wait to use a terminal can be four hours.

Sonia Healy has been out of work since June. So she waits, passing the hours daydreaming out the window onto busy Fifth Avenue. A man in a gray fedora and a dark overcoat is angling to hail the same cab as three laughing, chattering women carrying briefcases. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere.

Sonia Healy, bank manager, used to be like that, sprinting for cabs with her briefcase banging against her thigh, racing across town with colleagues to yet another meeting. Not anymore. Now the only thing she competes for is her place in the queue for a library computer. Now she moves languidly toward an unseen future she hopes she will find amid the stacks.

In New York City, the unemployment rate is 8.4%, far above the national average of 6%. There are 250,000 people looking for work and most of them were once in jobs that no longer exist. Many of those positions vanished along with the twin towers on Sept. 11. Headhunters aren't accepting resumes; unemployment agencies turn away applicants; Wall Street honchos talk grimly about even more layoffs.

So it's no wonder that use of public libraries here has climbed almost 10% since the summer of 2001 and that circulation is up 12%. Computer use just for resume writing at Mid-Manhattan increased 128% over the last year. On the fourth floor of that charmless branch on Fifth Avenue, there isn't an empty seat on a snowy afternoon.

According to librarians, traffic always rises when the economy falls. In years past, that meant the jobless filled empty hours amid books. Distraction, comfort and a warm place to alight, all in one place. Now public libraries offer solutions as much as distractions.

The Mid-Manhattan branch, for example, devotes almost an entire floor to a Job Information Center that proffers thousands and thousands of pages of advice about finding work. There are also multiple databases, workshops and bulletin boards splattered with newspaper articles quoting Labor Department statistics. And when you run out of contacts to pester and get sick of daytime TV, the library is also just a place to go.

Sonia starts her mornings there cuddled up with her chosen tomes: "Resumes That Knock 'Em Dead," "New York's Top 200 Industries" and "Catch Fire: A 7-Step Program to Ignite Energy, Defuse Stress and Power Boost Your Career."

"The titles alone exhaust me," she whispers. She smiles but her good humor seems forced. Short, red-haired and roundish, she looks younger than "almost 50," as she likes to describe herself.

"Middle-aged, mid-career, big midriff," she says, honking a laugh and looking around to see if anyone is listening. Then she grabs another book: "Becoming a Chef."

"My husband works at the Inter-Continental and says he might be able to get me something in catering if the economy ever picks up," she explains.

After 17 years at a bank -- 17 years of commuting 40 minutes each way between her house in Queens and the office in Manhattan, 17 Christmas lunches at Keens Steakhouse, a 17-year marathon to keep up with runaway technology -- she was let go last spring. At first, she was relieved to be home. She lugged everything out of the attic and took to reorganizing her life. She started doing her own nails, shopping at Pricewise and substituting ground chuck for sirloin in Sunday lunch. But last fall, she and her husband, Eddie, decided they needed more money.

She unspools her story in a voice that is matter-of-fact until the subject turns to her daughter, a sophomore majoring in business at a state college. Then Sonia's voice catches: "Listen, I'm casting a wide net now because I need to have enough money for my girl to stay in school so she doesn't end up like me. I'd like to get back to a bank, but frankly I'd even baby-sit. I mean, Eddie could lose his job if things keep going the way they are."

She took a free course at a Queens public library on how to buff up a resume, and another at Mid-Manhattan on finding links to Internet job sites. But her daughter took the laptop to school, so Sonia has to rely on library computers to look for work. She does it at the Manhattan library because the commute there makes her feel better: If she's going somewhere maybe she's getting somewhere.

There are fancier databases in the city, such as at the Science, Industry and Business Library, also on Fifth Avenue, but Sonia can't stand being around the out-of-work dot-commers, those twitchy boys in leather jackets who are always snapping open their cell phones when they're online.

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