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'The library is so much more than just books': Community shares its vision for library's future

Posted at 3:31 PM, Oct 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-08 16:31:40-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — As speculation about the future of the Omaha Public Libraries (OPL) continues, despite objections from local leaders, the community is sharing its vision for what the library system could be.

For the next several weeks OPL is hosting public forums on the future of library services, although talk about facilities continues to make its way into the conversation.

The first session took place at the Willa Cather Branch on Thursday night, with several community members asking the library to do more to share its services.

“There are so many parts of the library that I don’t think are being utilized, that I would like to see made more clear or more public somehow,” said one speaker.

Others ask that services be shared outside the library walls.

Jane Skinner, a librarian with the Department of Corrections, says OPL could be offering more meaningful services to the incarcerated population like GED programs and English as a Second Language classes.

“These are people with really high-level needs,” said Jane Skinner. “50% of the people who intake to the Nebraska Department of Corrections read below the ninth-grade level. So when I look at the kinds of services that OPL offers, I don’t see anything that serves this population.”

Others ask that OPL consider modernizing its technology a bit more. One speaker said adding wireless printing and eliminating faxing fees could benefit many who use the library.

But the community does not want to see the library system become too technology-focused.

“The library is so much more than just books, and it will always be more to me, and should always be in this community more than just picking up books,” said Aara Howard, a former state legislator. “So that previous conversation about bots or warehouses, or just pick-up and drop-off of books, really concerned me.”

Several community members expressed concerns like this that have been echoed through the community in recent weeks.

Rumors of the public library system being privatized brought many out on Thursday night.

One woman said the library would be privatized over her dead body and felt the community had been left in the dark as city officials worked behind the scenes.

Mike Kennedy, President of the Omaha Public Library Board, says the board is against privatization and reiterates that this is not the plan.

When asked what role Heritage Services would be playing in the future of the library, Kennedy said they would be working with donors to help fund the libraries.

“Their job is to find the donors to connect with us, and I think that’s a great thing,” Kennedy said. “You got to talk to the donors; what do they want to see in the libraries as well as the communities? I think the vision’s similar from both ends.”

Mayor Jean Stothert, who did not attend Thursday night’s meeting, reiterated in a press conference earlier in the day that the libraries would not be going private.

She did say there was some truth that the Downtown library scene would be changing though. She pointed to audits that describe the W. Dale Clark branch as outdated.

“We still will have a Downtown library, but it probably will not be in that spot that the Dale Clark is in now,” Stothert said.

A speaker on Thursday night shared his worries about this plan.

“I’m concerned how people in most need of those services can find out about them, especially if there is a threat of closing older branches, smaller branches in places where people can walk or get public transportation,” the speaker said.

Stothert also said at the press conference that the location of the current Downtown library is prime real estate with the Gene Leahy Mall set to open soon.

“There are numerous developers that are already in that spot to have that spot right at the end of the new development,” Stothert said. “It has nothing to do whatsoever with —anything to do with — our philanthropic community is considering doing.”

Kennedy says they’ve been talking with Heritage Services and the Mayor’s Office about future plans for all facilities, but nothing has been finalized yet.

“We’ve talked about what we want; we want to make sure our librarians are city employees,” Kennedy said. “We want to make sure we’re not privatized. We want to make sure that we have cutting-edge technology in all of our branches. And the great news is, Heritage says they want to fund that.”

Kennedy adds that moving the central library location from downtown to 72nd has been in the plans for several years now and it's something the community will approve of when they see more.

“If we get the new central library with their help, I think people are going to be very pleasantly surprised when they come up with the final decision,” he said.

Kennedy says they will likely begin having public meetings about facilities sometime early next year.

Four more listening sessions are planned.

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