Columnist Nicholas Brown: Roadblock to progress in Amherst

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Our public libraries are a testament to our shared cultural belief that access to information and community resources are paramount to our freedom, empowerment, and growth.

For those of you who are new to the conversation, the Jones Library trustees have proposed renovations and an expansion to the existing facility. Many in the community support the change, understanding that the library as it stands needs work to sustain our diverse population.

Unfortunately, a small group of obstructionists named Save Our Library (SOL) has invested considerable time and effort to stonewall the renovations, citing the historical importance of the building, insisting that the space be utilized more efficiently so that the building can remain as is.

Sadly, their reasons are motivated by personal sentiment and fail to account for the number of people who would benefit from the renovations. Even the name is misleading, suggesting that the library itself is in danger.

While the aesthetic of the building and its outlying garden are magnificent to look upon, the Jones Library is currently in desperate need of repair and many of the facilities within the building are insufficient to support the community and the services the library offers. The Jones trustees have even noted in their proposal that they wish to preserve as much of the historic infrastructure as possible and that they have selected an architect who shares the same vision. They are working very hard to make the changes tasteful, elegant, and respectful of the rich history of the building.

The various services the Jones Library affords our community extend well beyond merely lending books and movies. As one example, the ESL program has found such success that a larger space is needed. The renovations would alleviate the strain on the program, which is often completely booked and leaves some unable to participate.

SOL has suggested that the ESL program (and other programs they deem nonessential) be moved to another location. Suggesting that, instead of renovating, we move all the non-English speaking residents outside of town center for their programs sends a poor message.

The centralized location of the Jones Library is essential to its utility. Almost all public transportation in the area runs through Amherst Center. Moving ESL to the North Amherst branch (one of the SOL proposed locations) would create countless difficulties for residents without the luxury of personal vehicles. Are we truly considering segregating our services?

The proposed renovations would cost $35.6 million. If the renovation is approved by the state, Amherst would receive $13.7 million from the state, with the town taking on the rest of the debt. This seems like a good deal that shouldn’t be shelved because a few wealthy donors are worried that their garden will be tarnished. To stand in the way of these renovations because we fear that the aesthetic might change, even when the state is offering assistance, is to block progress out of sheer vanity.

To reject the renovations out of nostalgia is a knee-jerk reaction by those whose personal investment in the library is one of privilege and convenience, for whom the library serves solely as a point of pride and reminder of our affluent history, ignoring the needs of a diverse community that depend on numerous services like ESL programs, youth activities, and access to public resources that would otherwise be unknown.

The library is not a place for the wealthy to congratulate themselves on their historic buildings and traditional architecture. The public library is where the community goes to improve itself.

In the words of the fictional dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen of “Game of Thrones,” “If I look back, I am lost.” To hold on to the past too tightly is to deny the future of a community that prides itself on being progressively ahead of the curve.

Nicholas Brown, a freelance writer, lives in Amherst near the Jones Library which he frequently uses.