Columnist Sarah McKee: Must rethink Jones Library project in Amherst

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners July 13 awarded provisional construction grants totaling $67 million to nine public libraries.

The commissioners ranked the Jones Library’s application for a $13.87 million grant as 18th out of the 33 projects, and placed it in ninth place on a prioritized waiting list. Three commissioners informally told Amherst residents who attended the meeting that it could be three to five years or more, if ever, until additional state funding becomes available.

So Amherst residents now have a welcome opportunity to consider what services we really want and need from our Jones, Munson, and North Amherst libraries, and how to deliver them. As a past library trustee president, and speaking only for myself, I believe that the wise course now is for us to radically rethink this project, with townwide participation and from a townwide perspective.

Nonetheless, some immediate steps are clear. As to the Jones Library building, for instance, certain repairs and full accessibility can be deferred no longer. The paint on the main entrance pediment and exterior trim is peeling badly, exposing the wood to damage from the elements. The 1960s lobby elevator is too small for motorized wheelchairs and emergency medical gurneys. Thus, two frequently used public meeting rooms are not accessible to all. The Disability Access Advisory Committee reported at spring Town Meeting that the library can be made fully accessible without expanding its existing footprint. We should start this year on both measures.

As to the North Amherst Library, the town’s purchase of the land behind it opens unprecedented possibilities. The recent offer of a rented port-a-potty highlighted North Amherst’s remarkable lack of any public rest room. Furthermore, only those physically able enough to negotiate stairs can even get into that library building.

The North Amherst Library’s ground level could provide an accessible entrance near the parking area; a unisex, accessible rest room; space for English as a Second Language (ESL) and perhaps a community room; and an elevator to the first floor.

The library trustees have more than $30,000 donated specifically for improving the North Amherst Library. Community Preservation Act funds can pay for accessibility. Rather than await a decision about the nearby Sunderland Road intersection, we can make the North Amherst Library accessible now.

Then, what about a comprehensive, townwide public library program? Despite the shortage of downtown public parking, the library trustees’ approach is to centralize most services at the Jones, where patrons who do not use public transportation must usually pay to park. A townwide focus could help to provide services closer to many residents’ homes, and where parking is free. It might even include a new satellite library, perhaps in a rented apartment, if families in southwestern Amherst want it.

Most importantly, a professional library space planner is needed to reconfigure the Jones Library’s interior. Architects determined last year that the building has 51,000 square feet if all space is used most efficiently.

Beyond efficiency, it’s legitimate to ask if the Jones needs a 480-square-foot gathering area; a space for Friends of the Jones Library to sell used books and other items;  a storage room for hard-copy financial records; a $400,000 automated book-sorting machine; and a Woodbury meeting room that seats 200 instead of the Woodbury Room’s present 125.

What about reinstalling the adult reading room’s second floor? Can moveable shelving effectively increase special collections’ storage space for archives? Why not open the Robert Frost/Goodwin Room and small, third-floor rooms for ESL? Why not some creativity?

The trustees are planning several sessions for public input into finishing touches for their huge, costly, and now indefinitely delayed project to demolish both an ADA-compliant, 24-year old brick addition and parts of the historic, 1928 original Jones Library. The library director has acknowledged that the project would not increase the size of the book, DVD and other collections. Its sole rationale is a preference for centralized programming in a greatly expanded Jones.

Instead, Amherst residents deserve an honest plan for a demolition-free way to renovate the Jones that we and other library supporters can finance. Interestingly, the state library commissioners can still award a grant if it eventually does have the funding.

What makes eminently good sense now is for all of us to think outside the box, in order to come up with and implement creative and cost-effective ways to renovate, so to speak, within the box.

Sarah McKee, of Amherst, is a lawyer. Though active in Save Our Library, she writes here as an individual and not on behalf of that group.