Neumann: Why now is the moment to bring our Jones Library into the 21st century

  • Jones Library JERREY ROBERTS

  • An artist’s conception of what one side of the renovated and expanded Jones Library would look like from Amity Street in Amherst. COURTESY FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Editor’s note: This column, part of a series about the four major building projects on the table in Amherst, dives into the renovation and expansion proposal for the Jones Library. (A counter position is included on this page.) It will be followed by columns about a new elementary school building, a new Department of Public Works headquarters, and a new fire station in South Amherst.

Much has already been written about the need to bring Amherst’s Jones Library into the 21st century. As far as I can tell, most people in town agree on the basics. The main flashpoint of debate is really about how — and when — to pay for it.

A huge state grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners means the decision is upon us.

Here’s what I think we, as a community, agree on already:

We want a library that’s fully accessible to everyone, including those in wheelchairs. We want a children’s section with enough room for all the Amherst families to have a seat and a place to hang their coat. And we want a safe, accommodating place where teens can go after school without having to buy something.

We want a Jones Library where water leaks don’t threaten rare books and photographs. We want a Jones that has the capacity to serve those who are new to our community and country – a gateway to the knowledge they need to thrive, using dedicated second language facilities.

And we want a library that reflects our community’s commitment and leadership on matters of sustainability. Our current library building uses more energy per square foot than the average library in America. The proposed expanded and renovated library would use half as much.

In 2021, libraries do so much more for communities than simply store books. They serve segments of our diverse community in numerous ways. At their core, libraries are citizenship incubators, bringing knowledge, communication and resources to all who seek it out.

But the building that houses the Jones doesn’t allow for a full realization of that role at this time. That’s a big reason why the Jones Library trustees have been working for years to renovate and expand the building.

The total cost of a proposed renovation and expansion is $36.3 million. The state has approved a $13.9 million grant to help pay for that. A capital campaign committee is committed to raising $6.6 million in other funding to help offset the town’s share of the renovations. To expand and renovate the library, the town would be expected to cover $15.8 million.

Amherst can afford this investment. We’ve been planning for it. We have a AAA bond rating, a very low debt load, significant savings set aside for capital projects, and interest rates for borrowing at historically low levels. Our investment will unlock nearly $20 million in state and private investment. This is the moment.

You might think that spending $36 million to renovate a library is a bit posh. After all, Hadley just built a new library from scratch for just over $8 million. But Amherst’s population is seven times greater than Hadley’s and significantly more diverse. The Jones serves a different, more varied role in our town, for many more people.

There’s another important point of comparison. What if, instead of expanding the library, we kept the current footprint and simply repaired the existing structure? Alas, that route is not fiscally responsible. The cost of repair alone is a big enough investment to trigger the requirement to also deal with the many accessibility problems in the building. Professional cost estimates for simply repairing and making the building handicapped accessible come to $14.4 million to $16.8 million. Simply repairing what’s broken wouldn’t unlock state funds — and donors are likely to be a lot less excited, too.

I’m happy to pay taxes because I believe in the shared enterprise of government to deliver services for the common good. But I expect the people making decisions about how to spend my tax dollars to make wise decisions. Using our local funds to leverage state support and private donations is a wise investment, while passing up that opportunity to instead throw millions of our community’s taxpayer dollars at simply addressing the backlog of structural problems is a clear mistake. That kind of financial decision-making wouldn’t fly in my household.

So this is the choice for our Amherst Town Council: An energy-efficient, accessible library that serves the bustling, varied needs of a diverse community known around the world for its deep literary history, taking full advantage of the rare combination of state and other funding and low borrowing rates to bring an efficient state-of-the-art library building to our downtown?

Or an expensive patch job that largely preserves the status quo? The answer is not as complicated as many would have you believe.

Johanna Neumann is a 10-year resident of Amherst. She currently serves on the Amherst Planning Board.