Guest columnist Austin Sarat: Why it is smart to vote yes for the Jones Library building project

  • An artist’s conceptio shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. COURTESY FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

Thursday, September 23, 2021

For more than a decade, as a trustee of the Jones Library, I have been worried about, and working to address, the condition of Amherst’s wonderful library.

When I began, I worked closely with other trustees, some who now oppose the plan to renovate and add to the existing facility. We agreed then about what was the smart thing to do for the Jones.

We agreed that the building needed a serious upgrade if it was to continue to serve all the community’s residents. We talked frequently about how we could improve what one state library official called “the most dysfunctional” library building in the state. We shared a sense of the smart way to address the building’s needs.

But in the interim we have gone down divergent paths in the quest to find a smart way to improve our library and make sure it works for everyone in Amherst.

The path I have taken has convinced me that the smart thing to do is to vote “yes” on Nov. 2 for the well thought out and well vetted plan to renovate and add on to the existing facility.

The smart thing is for residents of Amherst to take advantage of $20 million in combined state and private funding to help cover the cost of the renovation and expansion project.

The smart thing to do is not for taxpayers to spend $14-16 million just to keep the obsolete present building operational, when for around the same amount, Amherst can get a modern library that will meet the town’s needs for decades to come.

The smart thing to do is to listen to the town manager, finance director and Finance Committee who have said that Amherst can afford the renovation and addition to the Jones without compromising the town’s ability to address other capital needs, including the urgent school project.

The smart thing to do is to listen to experts in environmental sustainability who support investing in a renovation and addition to the Jones that will make it one of the most climate-friendly buildings in Amherst. Addressing the climate crisis is a moral imperative.

The smart thing to do is to use the renovation and addition to address the needs of Amherst’s most disadvantaged residents by tripling the number of public computers, expanding the space available for the library’s award-winning English as a second language program, simplifying the layout, and using universal design to make the library more functional and accessible for all.

The smart thing to do is address the needs of Amherst families, teens and children by providing spaces needed by all the children who want to use the library, the teens who currently lack a space of their own, and adults attending programs at the library.

The smart thing to do is to use the renovation and addition to support historic preservation of the wonderful, original 1928 building, reopen beautiful parts of it that are not now accessible to the public, and also safeguard the library’s town’s priceless Special Collections.

Like the narrator in Robert Frost’s famous poem, I believe that by doing the smart thing now and supporting the renovation and addition to the Jones,

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Austin Sarat is president of the Jones Library board of trustees.