I took a tour of the Jones Library last week, one of several being offered for Amherst Town Meeting members, who will vote May 10 on whether to approve a design for a $36 million expansion and renovation plan.
I’d urge anyone on Town Meeting who hasn’t yet gone on a library tour yet to take one. Tours will be offered through April 29, and can be scheduled by sending an email to: receptionistL@joneslibrary.org or calling the main number at (413) 259-3090, and pressing 0 for the receptionist.
I’ve been a Jones Library patron for more than a decade, but rarely venture beyond the adult fiction section or the children’s room on the main level, so the tour was eye-opening. I was acquainted for the first time with some of the library’s seemingly most impressive spaces, and with many narrow hallways and cramped office storage spaces the public doesn’t normally see.
The existing facility of 48,000 square feet dates to 1928, and sits on less than an acre, including a 1993 addition. The proposal calls for enlarging the library to 65,000 square feet. It would lead to modernization, an automated checkout system, new and bigger areas for children and teens, expanded services for English language learners, and adult bathrooms on each floor. It also calls for preserving and promoting existing special collections, including works of poets Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Renovation plan details are available here: https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/38437 The proposed floor plan is at this link: https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/38438
The library has received $75,000 in planning and design grants, and an application for a construction grant of about $14 million was submitted to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners in January, and an answer is expected in July.
Town Meeting members will be asked to accept a preliminary design, and the renovation project would advance if the state grant is won. A capital campaign to raise $5 million privately is underway, and if that goal is met, Town Meeting would be asked next fall to approve spending of about $16 million.
The library tour I went on was attended by about eight people. It was led by two recently re-elected library trustees, Alex Lefebvre and Lee Edwards. They said many concerns involve public access, especially for people with disabilities. There are two elevators going to the second floor, however, only one is large enough to accommodate a motorized wheelchair. There are small flights of steps between upstairs rooms, which include pleasant large spaces, such as a Goodwin meeting room and Burnett Art Galley, and a rabbit warren of narrow hallways and small offices used for storage. “We have a lot of inefficiencies because of our building design,” Lefebvre said. “Right now we don’t have a bathroom on every floor, we don’t have a librarian on every floor.”
It is unknown whether specific measures could be taken to make the upstairs more accessible apart from the renovation plan, which would lead to demolition of 40 percent of the existing structure. It is also unclear whether special collections could be moved out of the Jones, with the purchase of a historic house or other building in town, thereby freeing up interior space.
Although the 1993 library addition houses the seemingly glamorous Special Collections Exhibit Room with a chandelier and historic window, Lefebvre said it the addition has structural issues. “It’s not the most sound building,” she said.
I’d never explored the special collection areas before, and couldn’t come up with a good answer at to why. Maybe I was unclear about when those areas were open, or unsure about bringing children into them. The hours for the library, including for the special collections, are here: http://www.joneslibrary.org/153/Libraries-Hours
As many people are aware, factions in town are now passionately divided about the library’s future. A group called Jones Library for Everyone supports the proposed library renovation and expansion “to restore its historic role as a center for the cultural and civic life that make Amherst unique.”(http://www.joneslibraryforeveryone.org/)
Meanwhile, Save Our Library is an organization of patrons and former library trustees who oppose the plan, which would “forever alter the Jones Library’s warm, home-like interior and wastefully demolish the well-built, 1990s brick addition that blends with its historic neighbors.” (http://www.saveourlibrary.net/)
The debate includes concerns over the already-high Amherst property tax rate, and whether other capital projects should take priority, including renovation or replacement of Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools; and building of a Fire Station for South Amherst, and construction of a new Department of Public Works facility.
People who went on the tour had many questions, including whether the library would be “gutted,” where the renovation funds would come from, and what the remodeled building would look like. Lefebvre referred people several times to the floor plans, which show entirely new areas in a section that would be added at building’s rear. The first floor of the new section would include a larger children’s room, and children’s activity rooms and restrooms, while the second floor space would be for adult nonfiction and computer rooms.
Edwards said there are too many small, dark corners in the existing library, leading to “a fair amount of unsavory activity.”
The tour went to the bottom-level stacks where Lefebvre pointed to a corner with a few chairs. “This is the teen space,” she said. The Young Adult reading collection, however, is upstairs, where there is additional seating.
Lefebvre said under the plan, teens would have their own collection and space for programs. “We want them here, we want them engaging with each other,” she said.
People on the tour raised questions about whether libraries are still “quiet places” and if the Jones should attempt to provide the equivalent of a teen center. Connie Kruger, who serves on the Amherst Select Board, was on the tour and said the idea of a town teen center, or even an inter-generational community center has been raised at times. “We’re just not there yet – it’s a good idea, it’s a recognized need,” Kruger said.
The Jones Library plans also include relocation of many existing areas and functions. The Burnett Art Gallery, tucked away on the second floor, would be moved downstairs where it would have greater visibility. “A lot of people have no idea that this art gallery is here,” Lefebvre said.
Controversy has arisen about whether expanding behind the existing library would force closure or relocation of the Kinsey Garden. Although the garden has many defenders, the trustees and others have argued that its location, somewhat hidden from public view, leads to inappropriate use of the space, and the Amherst Police Department has noted incidents there. One recent afternoon, when I was in the garden with my daughters, one told me she saw a man go into the bushes to urinate.
The library trustees’ new information packet states that based on the prior advice of Town Meeting, 70 percent of the Kinsey Garden will be preserved, and 30 percent relocated to the front and sides of the library.
The Jones library has an average of 900 visitors per day, Lefebvre said. It circulated about 491,000 volumes in 2015, according to the Massachusetts Board of Library
Commissioners, and was the second busiest in Western Mass., behind the City of Springfield, which circulated 649,000 volumes. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners tracks circulation at the state’s 370 library locations, of which Amherst was 20th most active. Amherst is busier than Northampton’s Forbes Library, which circulated 359,000 volumes. Lefebvre said the Jones Library is so busy because it attracts people from surrounding towns, and helps to fulfill the needs of college professors.
The renovation plan would eliminate the atrium on the main floor, which has a history of leakage, Lefebvre said. It would also create a gathering space where children could eat snacks, and a boutique with a bookstore-like atmosphere where used books and other items could be sold. Lefebvre said there is a successful library boutique in Belchertown, and one in Portland, Me., where sales help reduce the strain on library endowment funds.