Central library begins to bounce back from COVID, faces potential challenges

Just a few years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic altered life for everybody. Central, whose halls were once packed with students and lights shining bright, went dark and empty. The once bustling library became an empty room full of dust-collecting books. But, the dark times of 2020 became the bright days of 2023. 

The library is now beginning to make its comeback from COVID, in the first year in the new library where there are no active COVID restrictions. Its resources, including Homework Help, are also on the upswing. Open every Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and every Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the library is trying to return to its bustling pre-pandemic state.  

According to library data, 75,000 visits were made to the library in the 2016-17 school year. This school year, it is estimated that 24,200 visits have been made so far, a clear drop from pre-pandemic days. While that number is not nearly as high as pre-pandemic levels, it is a start as this is the first year where no restrictions are active. This year around 220 students have visited the library each day before and after school on their own (not including Homework Help or study halls). Other uses for the library are also making their return. 

Homework Help, which takes place most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, saw 829 student visits in the 2018-19 school year, and is now returning from COVID with around 660 students visits so far this school year. If that trend continues, Homework Help could return to pre-pandemic visit levels by the end of this school year. Study hall visits and classes visiting the library are also increasing.  More than 540 classes have visited the library for a lesson since August, a nice change for the new library which sat empty during the pandemic. 

“The library is returning to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’ for sure in our visitor numbers and in our programming and instruction,” librarian Beth Wilson said. She thinks the library has been thriving this year and making the best of the space.  

Perhaps no group of people benefits from the library’s post-pandemic bounce back than students. Students expressed positivity and excitement towards the library.   

“I love our library,” said freshman Lucy Puls, who visits the library every B day during second hour for her study hall. She expressed happiness and excitement about the return of the library and its resources, and how it has a benefit to the start of her high school career. “Everyone there wants what’s best for the students and it’s very obvious,” she said. Puls also explained that going there for study hall helps her get work done. “I’m more productive in the library than a home or in other classrooms.”  

Another freshman, Grace Sunseri, echoed many of Puls’ points. Sunseri also visits the library every B day for a study hall. She called the library a nice and new environment, one that you can be productive in and that’s quiet at the same time. She said, “I’m not getting distracted a lot and I’m able to focus.” Speaking on the benefits of the library’s resources, Sunseri said the library offered “so many resources for students to succeed.”   

While the library and its resources may not have fully recovered from the toll of COVID, this school year has become a turning point post-pandemic. As the library begins to get many visitors again and its resources become more familiar to students, they could face potential challenges to fully recovering. 

Nebraska conservatives have taken on an education agenda that could challenge materials libraries can have open to students. LB635 says library educational databases must block materials “obscene as to minors or harmful to minors.” However, it is unclear what they mean by obscene, and state statute 28-807, which was said to clarify that, just says obscene means “appeals to the prurient, shameful, or morbid interest of minors, … is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors, and … is lacking in serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”  

Dr. Mikayla Arciaga told the Intercultural Development Research Association that, “The use of the word “obscene” is intentionally coded language that has historically conflated ‘pornography’ with non-obscene educational materials about gender and sexual identity.” She also said obscenity is the excuse to censor materials, a trick that policymakers have used for decades.  

 The library could also be challenged by LB374, dubbed the ‘Parental Bill of Rights.’ It would allow for parents to challenge curriculum if they believe “learning materials, course of instruction, activity, or unit of study offered by a school will direct or otherwise compel a student to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to any of the ideas listed in subdivision 8 of this section.” Section eight of the bill states all the rights parents stand to gain if the bill passes. The bill also targets education standards that teach “individuals of any race, ethnicity, color, or national origin are inherently superior or inferior,” according to the bill’s language. LB374 also has a direct impact on libraries.  

LB374 would allow parents to directly challenge books on the shelves of school libraries in Nebraska. According to the bill’s language, parents have “an opportunity to challenge the educational benefit of any item of library content. Such policies and procedures shall require consideration of each such challenge and that if a challenge is upheld, item of library content shall be removed from the school.” As to what library content can be challenged, the bill says, “Inappropriate for minors means that an item of library content (i) is designed to appeal or pander to the prurient interest; (ii) depicts, describes or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to what is suitable to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act, sexual contact, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post- pubescent female breast; and (iii) lacks serious literary, scientific, artistic, or political value for minors.” 

While the bill is going through debate at the State Capitol, some are taking a stand against these bills because of the targeting of libraries. The American Library Association said book bans across the country are unconstitutional. “Libraries and their governing bodies have a legal and professional obligation to ensure that all members of the communities they serve have free and equitable access to a diverse range of library resources and services that is inclusive, regardless of content, approach, or format,” their website says.  

Regardless of whether LB635 or LB374 pass, the Central library believes it can adapt, just as it did with COVID and moving spaces.  

Wilson said the library will be ready for whatever the future holds. She pointed to a banner in the library that proclaims, -“The Omaha Central Library, where past, present, and future intersect.” No matter what role the challenges will play, the library and its programming are ready and beginning to comeback from the Covid-19 pandemic.