Why Amherst needs renovated library

By Austin Sarat

From its construction in 1928, the Jones Library was much more than a place to borrow books.

With its 260-seat theater, exhibition spaces, and “town’s living room” architecture, it was intended to entice all of Amherst’s residents to the library to sustain the unique characteristics of the town.

However, in late 2013, the interior’s defects, including space limitations, safety issues, inaccessibility to segments of the community, and what one state library official called its “dysfunctional” work flow, led the library’s board of trustees to consider a major building renovation.

After an almost three-year process, involving 23 dedicated public meetings, more than 20 community volunteers and professionals, the entire library staff, and one of the finest library architecture firms in the state, the board has developed a building program designed to serve the library for the next 20 to 40 years.

Central in this effort was the desire for the Jones to maintain its historic role at the center of the shared and joyful commitment to learning, culture, books, and the life of the mind that make Amherst distinctive.

The building program meets the needs of all those who now use and those who will, in the future, use the library. It specifically addresses constituencies not well served by the present facility:

The mobility-impaired who seldom use the library because they find the narrow stack aisles, rabbit-warren layout of the building, and minimally accessible parking to be daunting.

Teens whose introduction to the library will prepare them to serve as the future stewards of Amherst’s essential character, but who have no space in the current facility.

Children and families whose library activities today compete with other functions in a beloved but inadequate space.

The families of the 25 percent of the children in Amherst’s schools whose first language is not English, who will gain broader access to the library’s award-winning ESL program without having to be tutored in the stacks or in tutor’s homes (its space has doubled).

Those who do not have access to high-speed internet or who do not have their own computers and now find the library’s terminals too often fully occupied.

Residents hungry for Amherst history who will have ready access to the holdings of the Jones’ special collections/archives, and scholars who will know that its holdings will be kept in climate-controlled conditions.

The proposal is based on the list of services we believe are needed, and the space they require — the “program.” The trustees explored multiple options with the library and architectural professionals who ultimately determined that neither the present 47,000-square-foot building nor expansion of the library within the existing footprint would fulfill Amherst’s needs.

The trustees will ensure that any renovation and expansion should maintain as much of the library’s “home-like” atmosphere as possible. Thus, the preliminary designs for the renovation of the building maintain the exterior of the 1928 building; return five of the wood-paneled rooms with fireplaces to their original purpose as reading rooms and public spaces; convert several of the staff areas to public areas; make the barrel vault ceiling of the original theater space visible again; and keep the library’s front staircase. As we move forward, we will invite additional public participation in filling in the design details.

Spring Town Meeting will be asked to authorize the application for a library construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners that, if awarded, would provide additional funds for the design development and construction of the building. Such an award would represent almost 40 percent of the cost of the project.

A “yes” vote by Town Meeting would not commit town funds to the project, and any award of state funds subsequently could be declined.

The trustees have deferred much-needed maintenance to the library since 2014 in order to capitalize on the use of state funds to offset costs to the town of Amherst and its residents. Even with no expansion, attending to those needs would trigger code compliance work that would likely bring the total costs to nearly as much as the town’s share of the proposed project.

We have an important opportunity to improve our library and to preserve the founders’ vision of the Jones Library. We ask Town Meeting to allow us to take the next step in what has been a careful and inclusive planning process, and we urge all who love our library to make their voices heard in support of this project.

Austin Sarat, the associate dean of the faculty at Amherst College, is president of the Jones Library board of trustees. This column was signed by the five other trustees, Lee Edwards, Tamson Ely, Chris Hoffmann, Alex Lefebvre and Robert Pam.

Originally published in the Amherst Bulletin