Guest columnist Jeff Lee: Unpublished Jones space plan proposes alternatives to costly expansion

  • A Jones Library patron exits through the front lobby of the Amherst library about a year ago. Gazette file photo

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

A professional space study requested by the Jones Library before development of the multimillion-dollar plan to expand the building by 15,000 square feet reveals a number of recommendations for achieving programming goals within the existing library footprint.

The report, previously unavailable to the public, was prepared by Anna Popp, a consultant with Massachusetts Library System, a state-supported collaborative providing services to libraries across the commonwealth. The document was obtained in response to a public record request after Library trustees President Austin Sarat alluded to its existence at the board’s Sept. 12 meeting. An online search has turned up no mention of the study on the Jones Library or town of Amherst websites, nor in any trustee meeting minutes.

The Popp study recommends a combination of aggressive weeding of underutilized collections, low-cost space reassignments, repurposing some staff areas for public use, and researching options for storing Special Collections materials off site.

The study is undated but is believed to have been done in the first half of 2015. The “Jones Library Trustees Building Program” reports that “an independent consultant conducted a lengthy survey to measure the effectiveness of the Jones Library and future needs from 2/12/2015 through 3/5/2015.”

Popp analyzed size and circulation data for the library’s various collections and applied the nationally recognized Wisconsin Public Library Standards to advise on which collections should be reduced. She identified the adult nonfiction (heavily used but also quite large), juvenile nonfiction, and magazine collections as being targets for aggressive weeding. Overall, she recommended reducing the number of books by 34,000, which would free up 600 to 1,100 shelves and bring library holdings more in line with Wisconsin standards.

The report also pointed out that advances in technology allow replacing audiovisual formats like tapes and CDs with newer formats that require less space.

The study urged moving the library’s multiple separate storage spaces to a more efficient central location. “There are so many interesting areas in the Jones, and each department seems to have carved out its own storage spaces,” it states.

The analysis found that library areas currently assigned to staff might better serve as public spaces. Popp wrote, “I understand that staff value a clean, well-lit and attractive workspace. However, some of the ‘prime real estate’ in the Jones is currently limited to staff areas. This is space that is not available to the patrons, the people for whom the building was erected. I have attempted to make these areas available to users and find alternate attractive and functional areas for staff.”

Regarding the Jones Library’s extensive Special Collection materials, Popp acknowledged challenges, but advised thinking outside the box. “The space needs of the special collection pose a challenge to address. There is no available space adjoining the climate-controlled storage. Off-site storage options should be researched.”

Not only were space needs addressed, but operational improvements were suggested as well. Popp proposed moving the director’s office to the third floor and repurposing the current office as a public refreshment area and lockable shop.

Recognizing the difficulty in marshalling funds and resources, Popp advocated a manageable roadmap or staged implementation schedule for space changes.

Finally, the space planning study presented a revised schematic design for the building’s four floors. Consultant Popp was able to accommodate a Large Meeting Room, a centralized Children’s Collection, a Crafts Room, a Lounge or Storytime space, a Young Adult meeting area, a dedicated ESL training space, an Internet Lab, a Career Center, Special Collections Exhibit and Reading Rooms near the Burnett Art Gallery, the most popular adult collections on the first floor, and a Café/Bookstore/Cellphone area.

These goals would be achieved without knocking down any of the historic building’s exterior walls, and without the need for construction of a library expansion now estimated to cost nearly $50 million and running concurrently with an elementary school building project projected to require a $65 million property tax override.

Jeff Lee is a resident of Amherst with an interest in town government.