Grace: Omaha's libraries aren't passé, they're 'a vital part of life for a lot of families' -
Published Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:45 am
Grace: Omaha's libraries aren't passé, they're 'a vital part of life for a lot of families'

At 10 a.m. in Millard, 8-year-old Edgar Ramirez writes a story in Spanish.

At 11 a.m. near Bennington, Ramona Ford watches her four grandkids dig in the sand.

At 1 p.m. in Dundee, Andrew Blazauskas lights up when a woman lugs around a scaly, hissing creature. “Ooooh!” the 6-year-old says. “An alligator!”

At 3:30, there's poetry in north Omaha; at 4 p.m. there's composting in Elkhorn. And at dinnertime, teens are flocking to south Omaha for a lock-in.

Just another day at your friendly Omaha public library, where, among any of the city's 12 branches, you're as likely to find a Jazzercise class as storytime.

If the idea of a library seems as anachronistic as cave drawings in this digital age, consider how Omahans are using their libraries.

For exercise. Child care. Self-improvement. Community. Safety in violent neighborhoods.

And for that original purpose — ever since clay tablets were collected around 2600 B.C., forming history's first libraries — information.

Particularly the digital kind. Particularly for people without access to computers.

This includes suburban families on homework nights when one household computer is not enough. This includes people who need free Wi-Fi and a place to plug in their laptops without going to a Starbucks.

The library has evolved into many things. It is haven and classroom and art studio. It is rec center and movie theater and office.

The library is like that Robert Frost definition of home: the place that when you go there, they have to let you in.

When the doors are open, that is.

Budget talks underway have raised the possibility of closed branches, reduced hours and fewer programs. The library system, like all city departments, is looking for cuts as Mayor Jean Stothert prepares her first city budget.

She has asked the library to reduce its 2014 spending request from $13.97 million to $13.12 million.

Stothert has also asked the library to cut spending in the current year, budgeted at $13.35 million. In total, the library has to find $393,000 in cuts.

Library Director Gary Wasdin said it's early yet, and no decisions have been made. The library system is complying with the mayor's request and looking closely at all costs, he said.

Library use is generally up, owing in part to two new branches: Elkhorn in 2007 and Saddlebrook in 2009. There are 74 percent more people using library programs, 30 percent more card-holders and 15 percent more visitors now than five years ago.

Down slightly are the numbers of circulated items and computer use sessions. The library attributes the dip in computer use to outdated technology and the proliferation of smartphones. That said, the computers at the library are always in use.

I spent a recent day visiting several Omaha libraries, starting with the busiest one: Millard.

I counted 59 cars in the parking lot by the time I left “ˇYo Escribe!” a Spanish literacy class for the children of native Spanish speakers. A Millard-area mom, who was born in Argentina, volunteered to teach the class for free. The library gave her the space.

Driving northwest, I bypassed Omaha's newest library, Saddlebrook, and landed at Stonegate Park, 168th Street and Kansas Avenue. Here some 100 children, parents and grandparents had gathered for a roving outdoor storytime — called Out and About — sponsored by the Saddlebrook Library. People could check out books and children could dig in the sand. Library staff reminded them to bring winter coats next week, when storytime will be held at a South Omaha ice skating rink.

“I love it,” gushed Katy Picon, who brought her 9-year-old son and twin toddler daughters to the park. “I like that it's outside, that it involves books and experience. This program is introducing us to new parks in Omaha. This is good for Omaha.”

That was an opinion shared by Matthew Pyle, who brings his children, ages 4 and 6, to Saddlebrook “almost on a daily basis.” And by Ramona Ford, who watches her four grandchildren while their parents work.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

“I definitely use the storytime on Tuesdays and the Out and About on Fridays,” she said. “We use the summer reading program.”

Summer reading remains a signature library program that existed back in the clay tablet era when I was a kid, spending summer days at A.V. Sorensen, loading up on Judy Blume and Madeleine L'Engle.

Some 12,523 people, including my three children, try to read as many books as they can. The library, mainly through corporate sponsors, promotes this heavily. There are prizes, parties, workshops, discussions, bubble shows, magic shows, Lego clubs, board game contests, puppets, gardening, anime, movie marathons, slumber parties, jewelry-making, Flickr-learning and tips on zombie survival.

“We don't go around going 'shush, shush' anymore,” said Evonne Edgington, manager of the Willa Cather Library at 43rd and Center Streets. “We have a Zumba class. A Minecraft party.”

And knitting on Saturdays. And English as a Second Language on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Even with all those extras, my visit to Willa Cather showed that people still want the library's most basic offering: information.

No one came to see the screening of the award-winning movie “Life of Pi” or to munch on the free popcorn that Willa Cather staff had thoughtfully offered.

Instead, teens like Taylar Collins, a voracious reader who lives two blocks away, looked for books.

Instead, adults like Rose Mora, who is seeking employment, stared at a computer screen. Mora was applying online for a job as a cafeteria worker. That's how you get even minimum-wage jobs now. Gone are paper applications and showing up in person.

“I come here probably three or four times a week,” Mora said. “A lot of the time, I get on the computer.”

Khoreen Vetter, with Wildlife Encounters, holds Husker, an Argentine Red Tegu, at A.V. Sorensen recently.

From clay tablets to Dell flat screens, libraries have been designed around a common good. To record history. To store information. To be a true public space.

To show off Charlotte the tarantula? And Jack the kangaroo?

I'm wondering this during a popular animal show held recently in the A.V. Sorensen gym, my final stop for the day.

Some 106 people from 11 ZIP codes had gathered to see the creatures brought by a Gretna animal exhibitor. They oohed and cringed over the tarantula, the fox, the monstrous lizard and, the popular closer, the kangaroo.

Yuri Blazauskas took son Andrew to A.V. Sorensen for this show. He takes his 9-year-old daughter to the Charles B. Washington Library in north Omaha for a cooking class.

Libraries, he said, “are a vital part of life for a lot of families.”

Libraries are a vital part of life for all of us.

We're all better off if Rose can apply for a job and Taylar has a safe place to go. We're better off if Edgar can write in two languages, if Ramona's grandkids get to find treasures in the sand and if Andrew and his dad, Yuri, get an hour together in a crowded gym with a tarantula named for literature's best-known spider.

A spider whose timeless tale you can find in a book by E.B. White.

On a shelf.

In the library.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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