As digitization takes hold, Nebraska library collections dwindle

Books-held-in-Nebraska-s-largest-libraries-Omaha-Lincoln_chartbuilder (1)In just 13 years, Nebraska’s largest library system discarded nearly half a million of its books. Those volumes were removed from the Omaha Public Library shelves and sold or recycled.

And they weren’t replaced.

Digitization has hit Nebraska library bookshelves hard over the past decade, as e-books and online media have become primary resources for one-time library lurkers.

In Omaha, a collection of more than 1 million books had been culled to just over 600,000 by 2014. The whittling of books came amid pushes to enhance digital collections, leaving branch librarians selling physical volumes on websites like and Between 2012 and 2013 alone, the Omaha Public Library’s collection lost 88,000 books.

“The purchasing of materials other than books is where the world is heading,” said John Zipay, president of the Omaha Friends of the Public Library. “I have friends that tend to be more elderly, they like to deal with paper material. They don’t like to deal with online stuff.

“But I’m sorry, that’s just the way the world works now.”

No, Nebraska officials say, libraries aren’t dying. People are filing through the library doors as they always have.

But the days of the traditional library, brimming with old, little-used books, appear numbered. A modern library should serve as a community space, said Mary Jo Ryan, Communications Coordinator for the Nebraska Library Commission.

“There are books, but there’s everything else that people need,” Ryan said. “And that’s what people want us to be. Our customers have demanded it.”

The whittling of collections hasn’t affected all the state’s largest libraries. In Lincoln, for example, the city library system had slightly more than 700,000 books last year. That’s up from 657,000 in 2000, and more than the library system in the state’s largest city held in 2014.

But one thing is clear: collections are not getting any bigger.

Nebraska’s 213 largest libraries carried a total of 5.5 million books in 2014. The collections of the state’s 17 largest libraries amounted to the same number in 2000.

Statewide, libraries withdrew 69,000 more books than they added last year. Ryan acknowledges that some communities have felt the loss of books — especially in Omaha’s branch libraries.

“Of course, as times change, libraries have a broader picture of how they connect people with information and other entertainment resources,” she said. “For many people, that’s just books.”

Some long for the days when you could stroll into the library and pick up a book that you might not buy, or even check out. That’s the beauty of a library, Zipay said.

“There will still be people who like that look and feel of a book,” he said. “That brings them pleasure.”

Amy Kenyon, a senior English Education student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said she hopes books always have a place in libraries. She hopes her students can one day have access to the same printed materials she did.

“I think it’s unrealistic to think libraries can’t be digital at all,” she said. “But I do think print books should always have a place.”

Ryan said as long as libraries exist, books will remain on the shelves. Only now, she hopes, the buildings themselves will serve as community nerve centers.

“The aim of a library in the 21st century is no different than it’s ever been,” she said. “We’re connecting people with information and entertainment just like we always have.”

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