The Jones Library is one of Amherst’s iconic institutions. When it was built in 1928, it was known not just for its distinctive architecture, but also for its role as a cultural center for the entire Pioneer Valley.
“It must be a library which shall be at the same time the center and home and stimulus and support of the whole intellectual and civic life of the town. It must elevate our schools and inspire our teachers. It must create and maintain an appetite for art as well as learning. Indeed, its opportunities are endless.” John Mason Tyler (one of the original Trustees) to Professor Burgess, August 25, 1919
The original building contained a 260-seat theater used for lectures, concerts, performances, and movies, and its exhibition spaces attracted many more citizens than a traditional book-borrowing warehouse. It was designed to be the community’s “living room” where all parts of the community could rub shoulders and determine the shape of their common life.
“We need a center where we can get together, plan together, then go out and work together for the improvement and progress of the town; to make it what it can be, and should be, and must become—the finest village in the finest valley of the world. I believe that Mr. Jones gave this library to the town to form a center in and around which we might gather and rally, renew our strength, and work together, to make it what our fathers dimly foresaw, and hoped for, and never saw.” Remarks of Trustee John Tyler on the dedication of the original building, November 1, 1928
At the heart of the founders’ vision was an ambition to attract everyone, not just book borrowers, to the library; to experience the values and culture they thought at the heart of their community. The Jones Library was considered an indispensable tool for the preservation—the transmission from generation to generation—of what they believed was uniquely important to the Town. And they wanted to provide a multitude of reasons for everyone to come to it.
This was no small enterprise. The $690,000 bequest by Samuel Minot Jones with which it was built represents $16 Million in today’s dollars, an enormous sum for a Town of 5,500. They did not want their treasure to go unnoticed.
And they did not strive to create a center for community activity because there were no other public spaces; there were. They wanted to attract residents to the library because, unlike at other venues, things happened there that were critically important to the character of the Town.
The Jones Library is no longer able to serve that purpose for Amherst’s population:
- Its stacks and other facilities are not accessible by the mobility impaired;
- It cannot accommodate all of the children’s activities for which there is demand;
- It has virtually no spaces for teens;
These two constituencies, in particular, represent our future, and we want them to come to the Library to appreciate its treasures.
- The popular Jones Library ESL program needs a space that is much more welcoming and supportive. 25% of the children in Amherst’s schools come from families for whom English is not their first language;
- The library needs many more computer workstations not just to adapt to the changing ways in which culture is transmitted and conserved, but also to make those ways attractive and accessible to those who cannot afford their own computers, a necessary tool for improving their lives. The percentage of Amherst’s population living in poverty has jumped from 26.5% in 1990 to 33.8% in 2015.
- The Library’s Archives and Special Collections are renowned throughout the world for their Dickinson and Frost holdings. And their invaluable records of the rich history of the Town provide continuity to a community with a relatively large transient, academic population. Its spaces are not commensurate with either the needs or importance of this unique resource.
Finally, as an anchor for a downtown cultural district, a vibrant community center at a renovated Jones Library would be a significant generator of economic activity, reflecting—and serving—Amherst’s unique combination of culture and business activity.
Of all the towns in western Massachusetts, Amherst should have the flagship library reflecting the unique values and interests that distinguish its citizens. The Jones Library does not represent that standard currently, and the renovation/expansion proposed would restore its historic position at the center of the life of the Town.