The board that oversees Omaha’s public libraries voted Thursday to approve the creation of an advisory committee that will make recommendations on future library operations, including the proposed construction of a new main library.
Omaha Public Library Board members and city officials have backed the creation of the committee as a move that will bring diverse expertise to the shaping of future library operations.
But critics have raised concerns that the committee grants too much control and long-term influence to a private philanthropy group.
The 10-member committee will include city and library officials, the CEO of Do Space and a representative from the Community Information Trust.
Do Space opened in November 2015 as one of the country’s first private digital libraries. Philanthropic fundraising group Heritage Omaha raised about $7 million to renovate a former bookstore into the current Do Space building. Heritage then created a private nonprofit corporation, Community Information Trust, to run the operation.
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Formation of the advisory committee comes as Heritage continues plans to construct a new library on the southwest corner of 72nd and Dodge Streets, where Do Space sits.
As it’s written, the resolution creating the advisory committee would appoint the following individuals as members: the executive director of Omaha Public Library (OPL), the assistant library director of OPL, an OPL senior staff member, the CEO of Community Information Trust, the director of Do Space, a representative of the Omaha Public Library Foundation, a representative appointed by the Library Board, the city finance director, the city’s HR director and a representative from the Mayor’s Office.
The committee will define and recommend priorities for the new library and the overall public library system, including potential revisions to the “library’s mission, vision and values as determined through the Advisory Committee research, Library Strategic Plans and input from stakeholders,” according to the resolution.
Amy Wenzl was one of several Omaha residents to raise questions and concerns before the board’s approval of the resolution.
“It has been clear from the beginning that the library and library users are not driving this process,” Wenzl said. “This resolution formalizes the ceding and authority of a public institution to a few wealthy individuals.”
The library, referred to by officials as the New Central Public Library, is estimated to cost upward of $100 million. Heritage has pledged to raise the majority of the construction dollars if the project moves forward.
The city would pay $20 million toward construction costs, take ownership and then operate the library as part of its current library system.
Heritage Omaha President Rachel Jacobson said Thursday that Heritage “has absolutely no interest to privatize the library.”
Heritage Omaha, previously known as Heritage Services, has bankrolled numerous major civic projects since 1990. The nonprofit is composed of some of Omaha’s most prominent and powerful philanthropists.
The group’s most recent project is a $101 million science museum under construction in Lewis & Clark Landing along the Missouri River.
Though the committee will share recommendations, the Library Board will ultimately make final decisions, said Mike Kennedy, board president.
“This is going to be one of the most prominent library projects in the country, and that’s made possible through the philanthropic community,” Kennedy said.
The resolution approved Thursday calls for the advisory committee to regularly make reports and recommendations to the Library Board during construction of the new main library.
The resolution also tasks the advisory committee to create and recommend staffing charts, job descriptions, and financial projections on efficiencies officials hope to see through the use of an automated book retrieval system, a robotic system that allows books to be more efficiently stored floor to ceiling. The Omaha library could become the first public library in the country to use the system.
Once the new library is built, the committee would continue to make recommendations to the board at least quarterly.
Some members of the public raised concerns over the lack of a clear end date for the committee.
As Heritage begins to raise money for the new library, the resolution will help ensure that there is “long-term sustainability of this world class library system,” Jacobson said.
“They want to make sure that commitment is made by all the different stakeholders, that there’s accountability there for the long-term funding,” Jacobson said.
If the project moves forward as planned, the new facility would replace the W. Dale Clark Library as the city’s main library as early as 2025.
The city is moving ahead with plans to demolish the downtown library later this year to make way for construction of Mutual of Omaha’s new office tower, a move that has sparked controversy. The city also is in the process of constructing a new downtown branch library within a historic building at 14th and Jones Streets.
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