Thoughts on Library Expansion

Libraries are not just book lending services; a poor man’s substitute for Amazon.com. The founders of the Jones believed that the Library was a powerful institution for the preservation and transmission of the values, ideals, and culture at the center of our civic and cultural life; as might be expected, this was particularly true for Amherst in contrast to the other Towns of western Massachusetts.

The founders believed that the Library can serve this role only if residents were attracted to it – participated in it – far more than if it were simply a book borrowing service. So, the founders took great pains to insure that the 1928 building included a 260-seat theater and an art gallery, featuring exhibits, lectures, movies, concerts, performances and other events. The Jones was as celebrated for this characteristic as for its distinctive architecture, which, in itself was designed to welcome the Town’s residents as the Town’s “living room.” And they made it stupendous in size for a Town of 5,500 so it could not be missed.

They did not provide these spaces because there were no other such venues in Town (there were), but because those activities attracted people to the Library, where things happened that were especially important to the Town, and that happened nowhere else

The proposed renovation and expansion is designed to support that ambition, to attract Amherst’s current residents to the Library for the same reason.

The current building may be barely serviceable for the current generation of book borrowers, but is clearly not large enough to serve as any kind of attraction for:

  • The number of children who can be introduced to its treasures and the experiences that only libraries can provide;
  • The town’s teens, who have no space in the library at all;
  • The families of 25% of the students of Amherst’s schools who’s first language is not English;
  • Residents who cannot afford a computer (33% of Amherst’s residents live below the poverty level);
  • Those whose mobility is impaired.

When today’s traditional book-borrowers are gone, the future of the Library will be in their hands. As in the age of its founding, the Jones Library must compete for the attention of these patrons, or it will become just another museum – and the heart and soul of the Town will be measurably diminished.

Thanks to the generosity of the original benefactor, Samuel Minot Jones, Amherst’s residents were able to realize these ambitions with a far better library than they had purchased. Grant funding from the Commonwealth and the possibility of private philanthropy have provided another brief window to maintain those ambitions for far less than they would cost; we would betray our heritage by being timid in taking advantage of it.

Estimates of the tax burden of the borrowing required to complete this project are available in detail, and are far less daunting than its total cost would imply.

The Jones will require a major renovation if this proposal is not accepted; even a cursory walk-through reveals its overwhelming deferred maintenance needs. The costs of these would not qualify for Commonwealth grant funding. The true cost of this project, therefore, is the different between the projected borrowing required for this proposal and the cost of renovations paid solely out of Town funds, making this proposal an even more desirable financial option.

The proposed schematic pays homage to the historic value of a significant part of the 1928 building. And it preserves a good part of the relatively recently installed garden behind the library; indeed, with landscaping funds and community planning, the Library may well end up with a garden that as aesthetically pleasing downtown space as is currently available.

There is no doubt that alternatives exists that are less costly, or preserve more of the 1928 building or the garden. A less ambitions project may save the Library building or the garden… but we will have lost the Library.

Finally, an expanded an renovated Library would have a significant economic impact on downtown Amherst. The patron counter at the Jones records 250,000 visitors per year. As is invariably the case, a renovated and expanded Library would increase that number significantly, serving as the anchor to a revitalized downtown cultural district that has long been desired.