February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Why  are  libraries  relevant? For Rem Koolhaas, international architect and designer of one of America’s premier libraries in Seattle, “in an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and, more importantly, the curatorship of their content that makes the library vital.”

This compelling principle of curation—a thoughtful way of organizing and presenting content—is how the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch promotes free public access to multimedia information, programming, and assets inside and outside the four walls of  215 S. 15th St. The library’s architecture, in turn, is both a container for, and reflection of, the community of Omaha at large.
Omaha’s first permanent public library opened in 1877 at 18th and Harney streets. Designed by Thomas Kimball, it was Omaha’s first building dedicated solely to a public library. However, with a capacity of 46,000 books and drastically out of sync with modern needs, the library outgrew this historic building after World War II. Often referred to as “the worst library in America” and “the horror on Harney Street,” city and library officials began contemplating a new building and the role a new central library would have in defining the cultural core of Omaha in the late 1950s.

While some branches of the Omaha Public Library system are named after locations, others are named after prominent city leaders and/or major funders. The central library branch is named after W. Dale Clark, a long-time banker, civic leader, and Omaha World-Herald board member. It is no coincidence then that during the development of this new central branch, the Omaha World-Herald was often a soapbox for the library’s necessity as a cultural anchor. A June 9, 1957, article explained, “a library should offer the opportunity for enlightened citizenship and the continuing education and cultural advancement necessary to a working democracy.” This sentiment held true for W. Dale Clark as well.

Although Clark did not live to see the completion of his library branch, which began construction in 1975, the 124,500-square-foot Bedford limestone monolith opened on March 9, 1977. Architects John Latenser & Sons of Omaha designed the $7 million open-plan building to accommodate 350 patrons and 400,000 volumes (the current collection is 500,000+ volumes). The Omaha World-Herald defined the opening as “the greatest event in Omaha’s history.”

Little has changed architecturally to the branch since 1977, although its surroundings continue to take shape—the neighborhood is part of a six-block $15 million revitalization plan.

The striated five-story W. Dale Clark Library opens laterally east and west and features a 110-foot bridge on the west entrance that spans a parking moat below for 48 cars, special facilities for audio-visual materials, a large open atrium, contemporary art gallery, and significant art collection including Catherine Ferguson’s sculpture Totem and an Olga de Amaral tapestry. The central library maintains practical roles to store government documents, house the ever-growing genealogy department, and to be a repository for community history.

In a building nearly 40 years old, how has the Omaha Public Library advanced into the digital age—an age where traditional media is seen as almost cliché? The answer is quite simple: curated in-person programing.

The facilitators for this community-driven programing are the 78 library staff at the W. Dale Clark branch. With a web of knowledge and resources, Emily Getzschman, the marketing manager for OPL acknowledges, “the staff are our greatest asset.” They fulfill the library’s tagline “open your world” by connecting dots—many of which are obvious (GED training, citizenship assistance, computer training, and literacy classes) and others that seem more disparate (STD screening, a toy lending library, speed dating, a culinary conference, and facilitated conversations around contemporary topics) all under a major OPL tenet of non-discrimination. As Amy Mather, adult services manager, says, “the library allows a smooth transition where a barrier may be to connect people with ideas.” In many instances, the library is filling voids in the public domain with this free niche programming—all of which is community driven.

Since its beginning, some have questioned the role and need for the Omaha Public Library—a story that continues to play out today. These opposing views undermine the very role of the public library as a space to define, beyond hierarchies, the community of Omaha.

It is a privilege and right to use the Omaha Public Library, which is free and open to all of the public. Everyone and anyone has access to its curated network of resources. The potency of programming, outreach, and staff reverberates beyond its architecture and stated mission placing OPL at the frontier of relevancy. As Mather says, “this is your library.”
omahapubliclibrary.org/w-dale-clark-library 

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

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