SCOTT SIMON, host:

Libraries take on a lot of roles during difficult economic times. They serve as a refuge for the homeless, and in today's job market the unemployed are seeking librarians' help in filling out and filing online job applications.

Now some libraries are taking on a new task: teach people about investing. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: With 401(k)s tanking, college funds disappearing, the stock market riding some kind of crazy rollercoaster, and some banks on the brink of nationalization, it's no wonder the average Joe and Jane are just a little nervous about what to do with their money. Where to turn under such circumstances? Don't trust your stockbroker? How about the public library?

Mr. JOHN GANNON (FINRA Investor Education Foundation): The current economic climate has made libraries a more vital institution in communities.

NEARY: John Gannon is president of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. Through a collaboration between the American Library Association and FINRA, a number of libraries around the country are getting grants to train librarians and set up programs to teach people about investing.

Gannon says his organization turned to libraries because they have the ability to reach large numbers of people who may need help with their money.

Mr. GANNON: You know, whether that's women facing retirement, teens, or even younger people who are, you know, still in school, it's figuring out how to get that information to people. And that's what the libraries are good at.

NEARY: The 25 libraries that have received grants over the past two years are developing programs aimed at people of different ages and incomes, using the Web, videos, even vans, to reach as many as possible.

Unidentified Woman: Here you go...

NEARY: The Newton Free Library in Newton, Massachusetts used its grant to set up a retirement planning club for women. Nancy Johnson, supervisor of the reference department at the library, says the last year has been a great time to start the program because so many more people are coming to the library.

Ms. NANCY JOHNSON (Librarian): We have 2,000 people a day and more that come in, and they're certainly job searching. But the people that are in this club are trying to learn about what economics means. It's a great time to study economics when it specifically pertains to you.

NEARY: At monthly meetings, women ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s exchange information, listen to lectures, and learn how to use the library's investor education resources. Johnson says many of the women have questions about things they're hearing about in the news.

Ms. JOHNSON: They wanted to know about identity theft; that's been in the news a lot. They wanted to know about Social Security, basics and more sophisticated topics within Social Security. How do you deal divorce issues in Social Security? And how about the problems of dying without a will? People didn't realize the complexities of all of that.

NEARY: Johnson says the number of people coming to the meetings seems to be increasing, and a number of men have even started attending. A good crowd turned out for the February meeting in spite of the cold New England weather. 86-year-old Meeda Moy(ph) is a regular of the club. She sees it as an opportunity to continue a lifelong interest in investments, which began with a hard lesson when she was just seven years old.

Ms. MEEDA MOY: I am a Depression baby and my dad lost all of his money in the bank. We circled the bank. People that all came to the bank on that November day circled the bank, and every time the policemen came to the door, through their hands up in the air and said, Go home, there's no money here for you. And I said to daddy, I'll never put any money in the bank. And to this day I don't.

NEARY: Forty-seven-year-old Carol Plumb(ph) was laid off her job and heard about the club through her cousin.

Ms. CAROL PLUMB: I have that whole fear of being a bag lady that a lot of single women still have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PLUMB: So I've been interested in managing my money because I've been doing it all along. And I know I'm lazy. And more I'm afraid. I'm afraid - I know how to do things, but I'm afraid to actually execute. So that's part of the reason I come here, is it forces me once a month to say, well, have you done it yet? And I'm actually - it's helped.

NEARY: And for 30-year-old Olympia Valentine(ph), it's all about the future.

Ms. OLYMPIA VALENTINE: I just wanted to get more involved and just learn more about my investments and just how to plan for retirement. Right now I kind of have other people to do it for me. I think it's best that I should do it myself. And I just - you know, to meet other people, and also just share thoughts and ideas. And just to start planning. Even though I'm young, I just want to make sure my future is kind of like just set up and protected, so I don't have to work forever, so I can retire soon.

NEARY: So next time you're wondering what to do about that 401(k), you might want to ask a librarian.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: To find out if your librarians are teaching about investing, you can go to NPR.org.

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