Don't underestimate our local libraries as a gold mine of job search resources. Both Fairfield and Westport, among others across the state, have been quietly offering assistance to job seekers for years, but with this depression-like economy, they are stepping up aggressively like never before.

I speak from first-hand experience. I had been in Westport a few weeks ago and picked up a flyer announcing a morning seminar this week for job-seekers, hosted by the library and offering a speaker from the Department of Labor. Fortunately, it was on a day when I wasn't substitute teaching, so I decided to check it out. I'm so glad I did, because I learned some wonderful new things and connected with a whole new group of professionals, who, like me, are out there looking.

Unfortunately, the Department of Labor speaker was unexpectedly called away to deal with yet another company closure, which was displacing some 60 workers. But Sylvia, the business reference librarian -- a knowledgeable, lively professional -- did a yeoman's job of walking our group of about 20 job-seekers and potential entrepreneurs through a gold mine of online and reference book resources.

She also provided numerous handouts, including the names of several networking groups I'd never visited; course listings from the Bridgeport and Stamford offices of the Department of Labor, pages of Web sites, handbooks and directories. I concluded that there were at least 20 sites I'd never heard of. And a lot of the sites have statistics about the most popular jobs today, salaries and company information.

Thanks to Sylvia's list, I actually took advantage one of the networking groups that evening in Fairfield. The Black Rock Employment Network Group (BRENG) has been going strong at The Black Rock Congregational Church for about four years and meets the first Tuesday of the month. There were easily 50 people there, ranging in age from late 20s to 60s and there was plenty of networking. The guest speaker/business coach gave me a whole new perspective about the process we must go through to change careers, something many folks have had to consider in this crazy economy. We then had another solid hour of lively, valuable networking and I made some great contacts. Two others from my morning seminar attended. I'll definitely be back.

The Westport Library seminar included some great discussion, especially about using LinkedIn more effectively. Participants gladly offered tips about the importance of updating profiles, getting profiles to 100 percent, joining the myriad of groups on LinkedIn and searching for jobs. I actually learned at the networking group that one sales guy had only recently landed a job, which evolved from the employer seeing his profile and recommendations on LinkedIn. It does work!

Another member of our morning group in Westport gave us a wake-up call about the black hole of the Internet job landscape and the required format for resumes we post to online job boards. The biggest no-no is a resume in Word or PDF format with boldface and italic style. Instead, he told us to always use text format, filled with key words about a position and use the "save as" feature to drop down to the text icon. The reality is that any resume we post is actually screened electronically before it's ever sent to a potential employer and without the right format, the CV could be lost or even deleted. It's a cold, cruel impersonal Internet world out there.

Sylvia suggested that a good practice after applying online is for a candidate to "snail mail" a resume with a strong cover letter to the employer and follow up with a phone call. I was so glad to hear that some traditional rules still apply.

She added that a young colleague had shared her frustrations about candidates who came in for interviews inappropriately dressed. The young woman also said that another pet peeve was candidates who don't send thank you notes. I couldn't agree more.

My curiosity about the online job search process led me to ask my good friend Jeff, who is a guru of job boards and hours of computer effort, about his own experiences. His answers were very direct. "You're a number and not a face," Jeff said. "That's what I've found. It's very impersonal.

"I really believe that face-to-face networking is still critical. In the end, a successful search boils down to who you know and not how many job boards you respond to."

My good friend Bob, the banker, echoed Jeff's sentiments. "Throughout my career, I've never used a job board to find a job. All of my success has been through contacts and networking."

As the Westport Library seminar wrapped up, I offered my personal writing assistance to anyone who wanted some help with resumes and cover letters. My goal was not to solicit business, just to offer a complimentary service that many people in this tight economy might not be able to afford. Three people took me up on my suggestion.

After leaving the Westport Library seminar, I wanted to check out what Fairfield Library has been doing, because I know that its staff has also been aggressive in reaching out to displaced and disillusioned professionals. I was pleasantly surprised with my research expedition.

Fairfield Library has three weekly networking groups going right now for job-seekers. One is on Monday at 1 p.m., a second is on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. and the third is on Fridays at 9:30 a.m. A friend Jon, with whom I reconnected at the Black Rock group, said that he's attended one of the networking groups and that it seems to be working.

I decided I might attend a group also, but I was really more interested in the library's speaker series, which covers everything from using technology resources to "Job Hunting Over 50: Showcase Your Strengths," which is coming up next Monday evening at 7 p.m. In a lot of the cases, the speakers are from the Connecticut Department of Labor. I'm definitely not missing this one.

As I mentioned earlier, leveraging our libraries as a valuable resource for job hunting is nothing new. Sylvia mentioned that Westport has been doing job seminars since the early 90s when another tough recession hobbled the nation. "But we never had groups this size," she said, "even though times were just as hard."

I'm not surprised. The Internet hadn't exploded in the early 90s. Folks were still using clunky PCs or Macs. Paper resumes sent by snail mail and facsimile units were still the main way to reach employers. And libraries, always under tight budget constraints, had to continue to rely on existing reference books, not always up to date, and whatever limited databases were available.

Now all that has changed. Kudos to our Fairfield and Westport Libraries for luring job seekers and potential entrepreneurs from behind their home computers to a seminar where they can make solid connections with others in similar situations. As far as I'm concerned, online networking will never be as effective as face-to-face contact.

And who knows? A short seminar like the one I attended this week might just put one or more of us in touch with a contact who will bring us our next job lead.

Steve Gaynes can be reached at sgaynes@yahoo.com.