Grace: Omaha's libraries aren't passé, they're 'a vital part of life for a lot of families' - Omaha.com
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

erin.grace@owh.com    |   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.

Primary battle between Battiato, Morrissey may be only race
UNMC appoints new dean for the college of dentistry
Jeff Corwin hopes to build connection with nature at Nebraska Science Festival
Metro transit recommends streetcar, rapid-transit bus line for Omaha
6-mile stretch of Highway 75 is the road not taken
After decades looking in, Republican Dan Frei seeks chance to take action
Cause of Omaha power outage along Regency Parkway unclear
Ben Sasse, Shane Osborn try to pin label of D.C. insider on each other
Curious about government salaries? Look no further
Easter Sunday temperatures climb into 80s in Omaha area
Omaha police investigate two nonfatal shootings
City Council to vote on adding Bluffs pedestrian safety lights
Sole big donor to Beau McCoy says he expects nothing in return
Convicted killer Nikko Jenkins might await his sentence in prison
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
Midlands runners ready for Boston Marathon
Families from area shelters treated to meal at Old Chicago
Firefighters battle brush fire near Fontenelle Forest
Sioux City riverboat casino prepares to close, still hoping to be saved
Omaha high schoolers to help canvass for Heartland 2050
Mizzou alumni aim to attract veterinary students to Henry Doorly Zoo
Grant ensures that Sioux City can start building children's museum
Party looks to 'nudge' women into public office in Iowa
For birthday, Brownell-Talbot student opts to give, not get
Two taken to hospital after fire at Benson home
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
A World War II veteran from Omaha will return this week to Europe to commemorate a tragedy in the run-up to D-Day.
Dickson’s Week in Review, April 13-19
On Twitter some guy tweeted that the spring game isn’t taken as seriously as a regular-season contest. What was your first clue? When the head coach entered waving a cat aloft?
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Meridian Med Spa
50% Off Botox®, Botox® Bridal Party, Fillers and Peels
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »