Guest columnist Robert Pam: Why I support the library expansion

Thursday, October 28, 2021

For five years I have been the treasurer on the Jones Library board of trustees and chair its budget and investment committees. We invest our endowment — gifts made to the library over its 100-year life — and each year draw funds from it to help cover operating expenses from books and subscriptions to heat, power and maintenance supplies. The endowment earns enough to cover our withdrawals and grow over time. The staff are town employees.

The big library question for Amherst residents this year is its proposed renovation and expansion. The Jones Library serves most adults in Amherst well, but the building suffers many physical weaknesses and doesn’t meet all Amherst’s current and future needs — for children and youth, for ESL learners, and for those who need print, media or internet access. I believe that this work is necessary, and affordable to the library and the town.

Staff and patrons alike suffer from outmoded equipment that offer poor temperature control, from damaging leaks, a layout that limits oversight and the full use of space, the lack of a first floor bathroom and proper workspaces for processing new and returned books and interlibrary loans. Repairs must be done now as part of the expansion, or I believe they won’t be seriously considered until all the other town capital projects are completed and their costs set. We have the state grant now, but we can’t hope for another modernization opportunity for 10 years or more.

This project must achieve three things: first, a plan that meets state requirements while balancing the town’s desires with available resources; second, win the confidence and support of town residents; and third, fix reasonable limits on the town’s tax-funded contribution.

We have accomplished a great deal of this. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners accepted and is funding nearly $14 million of the project cost. The Town Council approved the town’s portion of the costs and the town finance director calculated that the town’s $15.8 million share can be financed without additional taxes.

The Jones is committed to fund the $6.6 million balance of these costs. Our long-term supporters organization, the Friends of the Jones Library, has taken on the task of raising the library share. I reviewed the grant sources the library anticipates or received, and the level of private commitments already pledged. I am confident that the library will raise the money needed to fulfill its obligation. I have also considered scenarios where part of our endowment must cover a fundraising shortfall, and concluded that we can maintain library services.

I understand that some believe the plan is too large or badly designed. On size I believe (and other libraries have found) that small and unpleasant spaces limit usage, so “build it and they will come.” The library is one reason more visitors will come here and spend time (and money) downtown. We want kids to spend afternoons here, for parents to bring small children, and for all people to be confident they can access the internet for research or other uses.

From a broad perspective Amherst needs this as part of a strategy to attract and hold on to families with children and sustain the quality of its schools. I remember as a 10-year-old boy, how my library in Brownsville, Brooklyn allowed me a joy and freedom that my neighborhood did not encourage.

I think the design has improved greatly since we began. We have totally rethought the environmental components of the project. It is now brighter, friendlier, more sustainable, less costly to operate, and will be a more historically sensitive building. Skylights will make the second floor feel like the atrium and a broad stairway will bring daylight to the first floor as well. We will preserve and free up more of the historic rooms for use by patrons.

Although the major components of the future Jones are settled, some specifics will be decided over the next year. I have submitted my comments and suggestions, and if readers have ideas about how to improve the design shown on the Jones and town websites, send them now as design work continues.

Finally, the Jones has been a unifier in Amherst — virtually everyone likes the Jones and the branch libraries, and particularly the staff and the services they provide. I hope that disagreements about this project will not change that basic fact. I will continue to respect people who disagree with me, and I hope that this does not become a wedge issue.

I believe a better library is affordable and will benefit the town. Please support this effort and vote for this project on Nov. 2.

Robert Pam is treasurer of the Jones Library board of trustees.