You might think librarians are going the way of card catalogs.

After all, 11 of Philadelphia's Free Library branches nearly closed late last year, and the number of public school librarians has dropped by half in the last 15 years.

Yet local colleges tell a different story.

At a time when free access to the Internet, books, movies, and lectures is more important than ever, libraries across the country - where many librarians are graying and retiring - are seeking skilled information specialists, trained and college-educated in the library sciences. And library science programs here are filling the need.

Today, Drexel has 610 students in that program - among the oldest of its kind - more than three times the 181 the college had in 2000.

"Libraries are essential to our society. . . . So are librarians," said David Fenske, dean of Drexel's College of Information Sciences, which offers a master's degree program in library and information sciences that has reached historic capacity.

The enrollment surge is at least partly the result of a report in Library Journal magazine, which suggested in May 2000 that two in five library directors were planning to retire by 2009. In June 2005, the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington responded by announcing $21 million in additional grants dedicated to recruiting and educating a new generation of librarians. Since 2003, the Free Library has received nearly $3.5 million in similar funds as part of the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian program.

Other library-science programs in the region have also seen large enrollment growth since those IMLS grants came into effect, particularly in the last year. After a few enrollment dips in the last decade, the library sciences program at Rutgers University has had two consecutive years of growth. Its fall 2008 class had 558 students, 10 percent more than the year before, making it the biggest class in at least eight years.

Since 2004, Kutztown University in Berks County has seen enrollment in both its traditional undergraduate program and its online graduate degree in library sciences steadily increase, before a big jump this year. The undergraduate program spiked by nearly a third to 49 students, and the number of students in graduate courses jumped by more than a quarter to 53. While some of that increase can be attributed to Kutztown's newly offered online courses, says Eloise Long, the chair of the school's library science and instructional technology department, most of its library sciences students are pursuing conventional library placement.

Despite Philadelphia's being the birthplace of the modern public library, these future librarians likely will have to go elsewhere to work.

The 11 neighborhood Free Library branches once threatened with closure have a stay of execution until June 30, the end of the city's fiscal year, but their fate is far from certain, as few budget questions have been answered. In an effort to cut $8 million, or 20 percent of its budget, the Free Library trimmed 111 positions, 25 of them full-time or in-training librarians. (Federal stimulus money is slated for infrastructure and cannot be used for operating costs and permanent staff.) At Free Library branches, librarians make about $39,000, and eventually make between $43,000 and almost $52,000.

This recent library upheaval is "shortsighted," said Fenske, the Drexel dean, a move that is threatening to further reduce the number of librarians in the region.

"It is almost impossible to run a library in Philadelphia," said Deborah Grill, a former librarian, now a literacy coach at Germantown High School. "With these cutbacks and how people see librarians, it can be tough."

Too many people, administrators and legislators included, see a librarian as a glorified babysitter, Grill said. But in schools they help complement the curriculum, and good librarians develop a collection that connects with readers. In this information age, librarians hold the key to technology and are best prepared to bridge the often-lamented digital divide, bringing the benefits of the Internet to the masses, said Fenske.

"It's not just stamping out books," Grill said.

For 15 years, Grill, 58, of Mount Airy, was a respected librarian at Roosevelt Middle School in the Washington Lane section of northwest Philadelphia.

"I think I chose every book in that library," she said. But in 2005, the middle school couldn't afford to have a full-time librarian anymore. Mostly through attrition but also through cuts in programs like Grill's at Roosevelt, there are fewer than half as many Philadelphia public school librarians today as there were as recently as 1991. For more than 200 schools, there are 77 librarians.

"This economy is the time you need libraries the most," Long, the Kutztown library sciences chair, said. "I guess that's not getting across to public officials."

That means regional librarian students are being tapped to work elsewhere. Fenske recalls being contacted by a suburban municipality outside of Los Angeles. It wanted to send a recruiter to Drexel to find a suitable information specialist.

"I wish we could find some magic way of changing society's perception on what librarians and information specialists do, to sharpen the contemporary image," Fenske said.