Guest columnist Shirley Vernick: These are a few of my favorite things: The Amherst public libraries

  • Staff photo/Ken Heidel

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Back when I was checking out towns in which to raise my children, one of the first stops I made was to the public library. The Jones Library in Amherst clinched it for me. Nestled in a stately stone building right off the main street, the library bustled with patrons of all ages that day—people reading, learning, enjoying group activities, installing exhibits, and generally creating an energized atmosphere of community. My family moved to town within a few months of that visit.

Originally housed in a local hotel, the 102-year-old Amherst library system now includes the main Jones branch and two satellites to serve the town’s 40,000 residents. Through the years, the library has loaned millions of books and digital media; hosted thousands of meetings, book talks and musical events; and continually applied new technology to the service of patrons. Need to borrow a ukulele, an air quality monitor, a museum pass, or a wireless hotspot? Incredibly, it’s just a library card away.

Literal — and literary — riches

Linda Wentworth, head of adult collections at Jones, says she has her dream job. “I get to work with a community that’s insane about reading, and I have the privilege of managing a 300,000-item collection, some of it in multiple foreign languages.”

The Jones is now teaming up with another library in town, the national Yiddish Book Center, to (remotely) celebrate Coming to America. With the financial and intellectual support of the Yiddish Book Center, the Jones has arranged a reading group to discuss three books of Yiddish literature in translation, plus a fourth book related to one of Amherst’s larger immigrant communities: the Chinese.

The discussion series, facilitated by Wentworth, will use these books to explore the ways in which immigrants change our country, and the ways in which our country changes those who immigrate here. Through these discussions, participants will explore the range of immigrant experiences and how these experiences are portrayed in literature.

Another project on the drawing board is an ongoing book concierge service. Patrons will be invited to specify what kinds of books they like, and the staff will put two relevant selections on hold for them each month. Now, that’s my kind of book-of-the-month club.

The library’s youth services have enjoyed increased attendance over the last five years, thanks to a trifecta of new children’s programs, the creation of a young-adult librarian position, and a focus on inclusivity.

“Public libraries used to expect teens to act like adults and use the adult spaces,” notes library director Sharon Sharry. “Now that the Jones has given teens a dedicated space, their own programming, and a specialized librarian, we’ve become a cool place for YAs to hang out.”

The children’s room is continuously finding ways to embrace diversity. For instance, the library used to host an annual American Girl doll party, where girls could bring their American Girl dolls and participate in related activities. “But American Girl dolls are expensive,” says Mia Cabana, youth services director, “and are traditionally only for girls. So now we do a teddy bear/doll tea party, where both boys and girls are welcome, and the toy you bring doesn’t need to be fancy.”

Some children have adopted this party as a way to explore their sexual identity. Whether it’s a boy bringing a doll or a girl dressing up in a bowtie, all are welcome.

Something special

Many times over the years, I’ve lost myself in the library’s special collections. What a treasure — especially, in my opinion, the manuscript collections of local icons Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. I was so delighted to find a handwritten rough draft of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I was afraid I’d stare the ink right off the page.

I’m also partial to the Amherst authors collection, which showcases books and articles written by Amherst residents from 1730 to today. You can find Noah Webster’s lexicographical studies, Robert Francis’s poetry, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (my personal childhood favorite), and much more.

“The special collections allow people to bridge Amherst’s past to its present,” says Cyndi Harbeson, head of special collections. “Whether I’m sharing famous historical manuscripts or tracking the provenance of local buildings, I love working with school children, high school and college students, genealogists, international scholars, and general Amherst residents.”

Harbeson points out that the collections also highlight non-celebrity residents, including “regular” people’s historic photos, scrapbooks, store records, maps and legal deeds. “We serve as a repository for local Cambodian refugees’ records too,” she adds. “My hope is to expand this initiative and make the special collections more representative of our community.”

Quarantine, unfortunately, has closed the buildings. Nevertheless, the library services persist. The award-winning ESL and citizenship programs have thrived remotely. Dungeons & Dragons tournaments, wee sing-alongs, bilingual story times, tech support for personal computers — all these are thriving virtually, as are author interviews, art instruction, and music lessons.

In addition to keeping its digital materials and research tools available, the Jones has developed an effective protocol for socially-distanced book borrowing. The main branch is offering home delivery, as well as weather-dependent outdoor pickup. Meanwhile, the South Amherst branch has taken a page from the “wine windows” that dotted Florence, Italy, during the 17th-century bubonic plague scourge. Wine merchants during that time built tiny windows through which they could pass wine flasks, thus avoiding direct contact with customers. In just this way, the South Amherst branch is passing bagged books to patrons.

Love ya, tomorrow

In 2021, the Jones is hoping to begin a significant building renovation, updating existing structures and adding new space. The library has already been offered a state grant to help support the renovation. Now the staff is awaiting a Town Council vote on whether to underwrite the balance. “I’m very optimistic,” says Sharry.

The library also plans to rev up its nascent anti-racism movement. “We want every person who crosses our threshold to feel at home,” Sharry says. Indeed, one highly visible example of this initiative greets patrons as soon as they walk through the Jones’ front door. The large painting in the entryway titled “English Nobleman” (often mistaken for Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the man purported to have sent smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans in the 18th century) has been replaced with a landscape.

Jorge Luis Borges imagined paradise as a kind of library. It seems to me that the Jones is, if not a literal paradise, then certainly a warm and welcoming place for exploration and self-expansion. I can’t wait to be able to pop back in for a browse, and I’m grateful for the staff’s creative and technical expertise that keeps me connected in the meantime.

Shirley Vernick of Amherst is a children’s book author.