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Find out what could be in store as Omaha reimagines its public libraries

Find out what could be in store as Omaha reimagines its public libraries

Aerial tour of Gene Leahy Mall renovations

Omaha is drafting the next chapter of its public library system, a plan expected to lead to the demolition of the downtown central library, a new central hub elsewhere in town and an overall reimagining of how the libraries can best serve patrons.

And the city may partner with an influential group of local donors to co-author the plan.

Heritage Services, the Omaha philanthropy group that has bankrolled numerous major civic projects since 1990, has been in discussions with the city about the future of Omaha’s 12 public libraries. While officials say planning is in the early stages, and no partnerships or financial arrangements have been formalized, some big-picture possibilities have come into focus.

One major change, a city decision not associated with Heritage, could be demolition of the downtown W. Dale Clark Library. As the city’s central library, it houses most of the system’s collection of books, as well as archives and genealogy services.

Library officials say the facility, which opened to the public in March 1977, has reached the end of its useful life. Laura Marlane, executive director of the Omaha Public Library, said the building is too big and expensive to maintain and is in need of costly repairs. The concrete structure, an example of Brutalist architecture, has Wi-Fi dead spots, and its outdated design doesn’t allow for the kinds of community programming that libraries should foster, she said.

Razing the downtown library, which is bounded by 14th, 15th, Douglas and Farnam Streets, would free up the plot of city-owned land at the west end of the Gene Leahy Mall, which is being revitalized as part of Omaha’s massive $400 million overhaul of the downtown and riverfront parks. The mall is expected to open to the public next Memorial Day.

A second plot of vacant land east of the library, between 13th and 14th Streets, is also up for grabs. It is currently being used as a construction staging area for the overhaul of the mall.

Together, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said, those two locations are “prime sites for redevelopment.” They sit in the heart of the downtown area and are across the street from the mall, which is expected to bustle with life once the park reopens.

The downtown library site’s proximity to the mall has caught the eye of developers, some of whom already have approached the city with plans. Stothert didn’t have additional details to share about what developments may come, but she said she envisions two different developments on those sites that complement each another.

An example of developer interest: In June, David Slosburg of Spruce Capital Group sent a letter to three top city employees to express interest in the downtown library site. The World-Herald obtained the Spruce Capital letter through a public records request.

“I believe (Spruce Capital Group is) uniquely qualified to deliver a mixed-use development on the library site,” Slosburg, a Heritage Services board member, wrote to the city. He did not return a phone message last week.

More information about the future of the downtown library site could be made public in the next few months, Stothert said.

Demolition of the downtown library would create the need for a new branch to serve nearby residents and downtown workers. The city plans to replace it, Stothert said, likely with a smaller branch site, though a location has not been publicly determined.

So where might a new central library go?

All signs point to somewhere near the intersection of 72nd and Dodge Streets.

A 2017 library facilities master plan identified the Dodge Street corridor from 72nd to 90th Streets as a possible location for a central library. A new central library near 72nd and Dodge is “still in play,” Stothert said, though she said it would be “premature” to declare a site.

The location would make sense, said Rachel Jacobson, president of Heritage Services. It’s in the heart of the city; the nearby Crossroads redevelopment should breathe new life into the area; and there’s a nearby ORBT bus line station for those who rely on public transportation.

“It’s right in the center of the city — that could be a great place for it,” said Jacobson, who stressed that no location has been selected.

How does Heritage fit in?

Jacobson said the nonprofit philanthropy group has taken an interest in the libraries because its members believe in the mission of libraries, which she said contribute to quality early childhood education, literacy and lifelong learning. Libraries are “truly the last noncommercial public spaces” where people can gather to learn, collaborate and improve their lives, she said.

“The reason that Heritage has an interest in libraries is because they’re really pillars of social infrastructure,” Jacobson said. “They’re spaces for community connection.”

Heritage’s potential involvement could elevate Omaha’s library system to an enviable national model. The nonprofit is composed of some of Omaha’s most prominent and powerful philanthropists, and its support for an array of past civic projects virtually guaranteed that they became reality.

Heritage has tapped donors who contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to Omaha’s downtown arena and convention center; TD Ameritrade Park; a major renovation of the Orpheum Theater and construction of the Holland Performing Arts Center; and Omaha’s new veterans health center, to name a few.

The nonprofit’s most recent project is a $101 million science museum under construction in Lewis & Clark Landing along the Missouri River. The science center, which is being fully paid for by Heritage donors, will complement the ongoing revitalization of Omaha’s downtown and riverfront parks.

“They have a great interest in our public library system,” Stothert said. “As with every project they do, they want to make Omaha better.”

As of 2020, Heritage had pumped more than $700 million in private dollars into some $1.2 billion of civic projects over three decades.

Such financial support has led to groundbreaking projects that come in on time and on budget. But Heritage also has historically insisted on overseeing every aspect of a project, from initial studies to planning to construction. Critics have said the process gives the philanthropy group too much control and influence over public projects that involve taxpayer money.

Jacobson said Heritage will be eager to solicit community feedback before it moves ahead on any specific library project. The group, she said, plans to work with stakeholders such as Omaha Public Library employees, the city’s Library Board and the Omaha Library Foundation — the fundraising arm for the library system — as it moves forward.

“If this project gets off the ground ... there’ll be broader opportunities for community input,” Jacobson said. “That’s very important, particularly” because it involves the public libraries, she said.

What might the library system of Omaha’s future look like?

At this early stage, the structure of a reimagined Omaha public library system could go in many directions, but Jacobson and Marlane offered some examples of what other libraries are doing.

Part of the equation, Jacobson said, is about investing in the buildings themselves, creating “incredible” architecture that includes spaces for coworking and collaborating. Marlane said some library systems have begun to create more flexible spaces, with lightweight furniture that can be easily reconfigured and kiosks where people can check out laptops rather than be confined to a traditional row of computers.

Technology is sure to be a key part of the plan, and Heritage already has some experience in that area. In 2015, the group created Do Space, the private digital library on the southwest corner of 72nd and Dodge.

Founded in a former Borders bookstore, it was the first technology library in the country. It offers free access to ultra-fast internet, computer software and devices like 3D printers and computer-assisted laser cutters. There are classes for all ages on topics like coding and digital literacy.

In recent months, Heritage has explored whether the building could be renovated to become the new central branch, but Stothert and Jacobson said that option is no longer being considered.

Regardless, if Heritage and the city move ahead with a partnership on the libraries, Do Space is sure to be involved, Jacobson said. The city’s Library Board has begun a strategic planning process and has invited Rebecca Stavick, CEO of the group that manages Do Space, to be part of the process.

Physical books aren’t going anywhere, Jacobson and Marlane said. Some three-quarters of all checkouts at Omaha libraries happen as a result of in-person browsing, according to Marlane.

But the way books are stored and presented to the public could look different some day. Jacobson said some libraries have moved away from the stack model. Marlane said smaller, curated sections of books are becoming increasingly popular.

The philanthropy group has discussed the possibility of adding a “book bot” system to the next central library — a robotic book delivery system in which large machines store thousands of books that have been assigned a barcode or chip that can be read by a computer. Jacobson said that is just one of many ideas that have been discussed.

Heritage members and the city have explored other cities’ libraries to understand what a vibrant, modern library system requires. In the summer of 2019, a group of people connected to Heritage joined Omaha’s city finance director in visiting multiple libraries in Chicago and Minneapolis.

Jacobson, who became Heritage’s president last summer after founding and leading Omaha’s Film Streams, said she has been impressed after researching libraries in Brooklyn, New York; Calgary, Alberta; and Tilburg, the Netherlands.

Mike Kennedy, president of the city’s Library Board, said it’s exciting to see the donor group take an interest in such a vital city service.

“I think Heritage Services has done a wonderful job for our crown jewels in the city of Omaha, and I think that (the libraries are one of those jewels),” Kennedy said. “I hope that they can get their vision finalized so that we can have open discussions with our stakeholders in the community.”, 402-444-1304

Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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Reece covers Omaha City Hall, including the City Council and Mayor's Office, and how decisions by local leaders affect Omaha residents. He's a born-and-raised Nebraskan and UNL graduate. Follow him on Twitter @reecereports. Phone: 402-444-1127​

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