UPDATE: This story was updated to clarify Heritage Services’ role.
The first of five public forums on the future of Omaha Public Libraries will be held Thursday evening at the Willa Cather Branch. The strategic plan forums will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the following locations:
- Thursday, Oct. 7, Willa Cather Branch, 1905 S. 44th St.
- Tuesday, Oct. 12, Millard Branch, 13214 Westwood Lane.
- Thursday, Oct. 14, South Omaha Library, 2808 Q St.
- Monday, Oct. 18, Milton R. Abrahams Branch, 5111 N. 90th St.
- Tuesday, Oct. 19, Charles B. Washington Branch, 2868 Ames Ave.
A survey on the strategic plan went live online last week and is also available at any of the library branches through Oct. 22 for anybody unable to attend the forums.
Controversy over OPL’s future arose when an anonymous Twitter account named “SaveOmahaPublicLibrary” posted screenshots of emails dating back to April 2019 between the city and Heritage Services, a nonprofit made up of many of the city’s prominent philanthropists that has funded several civic projects in Omaha. The Twitter user claimed that the conversations show that there was a plan to “privatize OPL and significantly reduce the services offered.”
The emails show that meetings between city officials and officials from Heritage Services occurred at least through September 2020. The documents came from a leaked public records request by the Omaha World-Herald for a story last month. SaveOmahaPublicLibrary posted the full 400 page document Saturday.
After SaveOmahaPublicLibrary’s initial tweet garnered attention, the World-Herald posted a follow-up story. Mayor Jean Stothert told the World-Herald that there are no plans to privatize the public library system. Heritage Services officials said the plans described in the leaked emails are no longer on the table.
In 2015, Heritage Services raised funds for Do Space, a “community technology library” at 72nd and Dodge St. Officials from Do Space, managed by Community Information Trust (CIT), were also a part of discussions. Rebecca Stavick, CEO of CIT, tweeted that Omaha spends half the national average on its libraries, and Heritage Services could provide the “largest private donation to OPL in its 144 year history” to fill the need.
Rachel Jacobson, president of Heritage Services, said the nonprofit’s current discussions with OPL are focused on a new central library, but no plans have been finalized and no funds have been raised. The forums were scheduled before the leaked emails, but the controversy is likely to drive turnout.
The controversial plan would have involved merging the OPL board of trustees with CIT, although officials say that is now off the table. New branches would be built, and current branches could be demolished or renovated to fit the new model. The libraries would expand their offerings for technology use and classes.
The OPL board made the demolition and replacement of OPL’s central branch, the downtown W. Dale Clark library, a priority for the future in their 2017 master plan. A smaller downtown branch would be constructed, and a new central branch would potentially be built near 72nd and Dodge St.