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Editorial: A new Omaha central library will move the city forward

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Omaha library fans may well see today’s 45th anniversary of the dedication of the downtown W. Dale Clark Library as a sad milestone, given that the building has a date with the wrecking ball.

The city plans to demolish the city’s main library by December and move its public services to a building at 1401 Jones St. A new Mutual of Omaha headquarters will rise on the current library block, just west of the Gene Leahy Mall between Douglas and Farnam Streets.

For those who value libraries, the practical and symbolic aspects of this change can seem jarring — as though city leaders are treating the library system as an inconvenient impediment to growth.

But the health and importance of Omaha’s libraries isn’t limited to a particular set of concrete and brick structures that exist at any given time. After all, the W. Dale Clark building replaced a previous version of the city’s main library that had opened in 1877. Change happens.

What matters is whether Omaha will be committed to a robust set of public library services that educate, serve and enhance the community.

What also matters is whether Omaha’s leaders are listening to what people want from their libraries.

So it’s encouraging that Omaha officials and nonprofit leaders are seeking public input on the design of a new central public library.

City officials announced plans in January to begin the process of planning a new central library at 72nd and Dodge Streets that would incorporate the services of one of the country’s first technology libraries, Do Space. It’s expected that the potential $100 million project will be located at the current Do Space site.

Now an open house-style public event is planned for April 7 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the gymnasium at the Omaha Public Library’s A.V. Sorensen branch, 4808 Cass St., according to a press release from the organizers.

The event is part of the group’s effort to gather input from a wide range of people, including library patrons and the community at large. More than 300 community partners also are being invited to complete a survey on the proposed library, accessible at omahacentrallibrary.org.

The fundraising organization Heritage Omaha, previously called Heritage Services, has raised money to continue exploration of the exciting project.

Omaha leaders — including people closely involved with the library — have long been looking at doing something like this. Library officials have been talking for more than a decade about the limitations of the current main library building, and about the value of moving the central library to a place that’s, well, more central. The 72nd and Dodge area is much closer to the geographic and population center of Omaha.

For some, the plan for a new library is a reminder of other, controversial changes: The W. Dale Clark’s fate. The new Mutual of Omaha tower that’s expected to replace it, using the sometimes-questioned funding method called the tax-increment financing. The streetcar plan that also would use TIF financing and is linked to the Mutual project. Concerns about the adequacy of the new, smaller downtown branch in a renovated building.

Technically, those things aren’t directly connected to the new library proposal. Let’s face it: The W. Dale Clark’s 45-year run as Omaha’s main branch is ending, no matter what happens at 72nd and Dodge.

But to the extent that a new state-of-the-art central library is effectively replacing the W. Dale Clark building, that’s not a bad trade.

On the day that W. Dale Clark opened, then-Gov. J.J. Exon described its purpose as “to satisfy the appetite of people hungry for knowledge.”

That hunger exists today, too. And if that appetite for knowledge can be met by a new world-class library with the latest technology at a location that is more convenient for more residents to use, so much the better.

If it’s done right, it can usher in a brighter future for Omaha’s libraries, and for the city itself.

Omaha Public Library's Recommended Reads

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In recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, OPL staff have recommended some titles by or about civil rights leaders, movements and efforts. 

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Winter officially begins on Dec. 21, and Omaha Public Library staff have recommended some winter or cold-weather-related selections to cozy up with this season.

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It's the winter holiday season, and OPL staff have recommended some selections to enjoy between now and New Year’s Day. Find these books and more at one of OPL’s 12 locations or omahalibrary.org.

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Today is Black Poetry Day — a day to celebrate the work and contributions of Black poets. 

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In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, OPL staff have recommended books by or about Hispanic Americans. 

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As students head back to school, Omaha Public Library staffers have suggested some of their favorite back-to-school reads. Find these books and more at one of OPL’s 12 locations or omahalibrary.org.

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Omaha Public Library wants to help readers find new books — or at least books new to them. Every month in this space, OPL employees will recom…

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