By Scott Merzbach
A free library at the center of the community’s cultural and civic life was a vital consideration for Samuel Minot Jones in being the benefactor and namesake of the Jones Library.
From a gallery where the public could view art exhibits to a projection room for screening films — not to mention wood paneling, fireplaces and staircases similar to a home — the library immediately became an important institution in a town with fewer than 6,000 residents when it opened in 1928.
But nearly 90 years later, as Amherst’s population nears 40,000, the current library, expanded once, is no longer able to meet its original objective, say supporters of a $36 million proposed expansion and renovation.
“That is something the town has lost because of the facility it has now,” says Kent Faerber, a former trustee who previously served on the town’s Historical Commission.
Faerber is leading a new initiative called Jones Library for Everyone that will support the elected trustees who oversee the library and Library Director Sharon Sharry in advocating for a project that they believe will enable the library to meet many needs. Among those are having dedicated space for teenage patrons, making it easier for people in wheelchairs to navigate through the building and providing more chairs so people can pick books off shelves and browse through them.
Under current plans, the project would add 17,000 square feet to the current 48,000-square-foot building by demolishing the 1993 addition and extending an addition toward the CVS Pharmacy parking lot at the rear.
Faerber said the project will maintain the ideals of the library being for residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and restore the shared commitment to the mind and intellect.
“The Amherst library needs to be special,” Faerber said. “We serve everybody on a particular mission.”
This new organization’s formation comes in advance of annual Town Meeting next month, which will be asked to accept a preliminary design for the project. The project would then move forward if a construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners is awarded in July. If that happens, Town Meeting would then be asked to approve borrowing for the town’s share of the project, estimated at around $16 million.
Save Our Library
Jones Library for Life also serves to counter Save Our Library, a group created last year to raise concerns about the project, including demolishing the entirety of the 1993 addition, removing and replacing the Woodbury Room that was renovated using money from benefactors, and affecting the Kinsey Memorial Garden.
Save Our Library includes three former presidents of the trustees, including Sarah McKee, who said in an email that space needs were never evaluated and that a less expensive alternative, using the current footprint, should have been considered.
“(There has been) no public procedure for getting input from the town in general, and all areas of town, as to what Amherst residents want and need from our public libraries, and what sort of project design we prefer,” McKee wrote.
Faerber said his group will speak to Town Meeting members and discuss how the project fits with the vision of Samuel Minot Jones.
“Our first task is to educate residents of Amherst about the unique function of the library,” Faerber said.
Faerber said a signature drive being launched will show that there is support from all segments of the community, with hopes to get as many people to sign by the end of April, when Town Meeting begins.
There will also be various public presentations, such as to the Rotary Club of Amherst, Applewood Retirement Community and business leaders.
Faerber is joined by current trustees Alex Lefebvre and Lee Edwards, with honorary members including famed writers Julius Lester, Polly Longsworth and Norton Juster.
Library as lifeline
With 25 percent of Amherst students coming from families whose first language isn’t primarily English, and even more from low- and moderate-income backgrounds, Faerber said there is an understanding the library’s resources are essential for many in the community.
“If you don’t have a computer, the library is your lifeline,” Faerber said.
This also includes the English as a Second Language program, which in the new building will have double the space, with more one-one-one and group instruction rooms.
Faerber said the project will allow technical services to move from the second floor of the 1928 portion of the building and make this area a reading room and small collaborative work rooms.
“These rooms would basically be restored,” Faerber said.
On the ground level, joining the ESL program would be special collections, with its materials consolidated from storage space spread throughout the building.
Larger children’s room and dedicated teen space will be created, as well.
Though there have been concerns about the interior and exterior finishes not matching the historic appearance of the building, Faerber said those decisions haven’t yet been made.
And concerns about the loss of Kinsey Memorial Garden are overstated, with Faerber noting this green space will continue to exist.
“It will be smaller, but there will be a garden,” Faerber said.
This article orginally appears in The Daily Hampshire Gazette