Guest columnist Thomas Johnson: Author: Where the Jones project fits in history of public libraries

  • Patrons enter the Jones Library in Amherst in 2021. Gazete file photo

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Like many residents of Amherst, I have been following the saga of the proposed Jones Library renovation and expansion with interest. Based on information available on the Jones website, the latest cost estimate for the project ranges between $43.5 and $49.9 million, which covers demolition work, extensive renovation and building expansion from 57,000 square feet to 63,000 square feet.

My interest is particularly prompted and informed by the fact that I have a forthcoming book (to be published this fall by Amherst’s Levellers Press) on the history of public libraries in New England — America’s first. The book contains 16 case studies of public libraries located in towns and small cities throughout New England. Several of these have undertaken projects similar to the Jones and I have compared these experiences to what is proposed in Amherst. I’d like to highlight three of these projects.

The most recent, completed last fall, is the renovation and expansion of the Peterborough, New Hampshire, Town Library, which is famous for being the first tax-supported public library in America. Like what is proposed for the Jones, this work included the demolition of earlier expansions. In 2018 the Town Meeting voted for a $3 million bond issue, and an additional $5.5 million was obtained through fundraising. The new library is the pride of Peterborough. The story of this effort is well documented in a publication issued by the library.

However, Peterborough’s population is only around 6,300 and thus the requirements of the town library are more modest than those of Amherst, which has a population upward of 38,500.

Two of the book’s case study libraries which have been renovated and expanded are in Massachusetts localities with populations similar to Amherst: Franklin and Holyoke. The first, established in 1790, following a book donation made by Benjamin Franklin, was the first public library in America. It underwent a major expansion in 1989, increasing its size to some 30,000 square feet. The cost was $3 million, or $7.2 million in today’s dollars.

The renovation and expansion of the Holyoke Public Library, originally established in 1886 through local business and civil society efforts and including funding from the likes of J.P. Morgan, occurred in 2010. The architect for the award-winning work was Finegold Alexander, the same firm as for the proposed Jones work. The library nearly doubled in size to some 40,000 square feet. The city issued a $5.5 million bond and the remaining $4.4 million came from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. Other funding in the amount of $4.6 million was raised, including from federal tax credits. The total cost in today’s dollars was $22 million.

I will mention one other case study library in passing, the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington (pop. 34,000). This arguably is the most extravagant public library among those the book examines, not surprisingly given the community’s very high mean income ($190,000 versus Amherst’s $70,000) and highly educated population. The size of the Cary is approximately 62,000 square feet — the only library among the case studies larger than the current Jones.

Of note is the fact that the current size of the Jones is considerably larger than any of the three renovated public libraries, but because their expansion work was well designed and executed they have sufficient space for patrons (what the libraries in Franklin and Peterborough lack is adequate parking). The second issue is the disparity in cost, which in the case of the Jones is now projected to be more than twice the cost of the most expensive of the cited projects — the Holyoke Public Library.

I would like to suggest to those interested in the future of the Jones to visit one or more of these three public libraries. The one in Holyoke is about 30 minutes away. The other two libraries are less than a 90-minute drive from Amherst. The original interior of the Franklin public library is among the most beautiful in America, and the modernistic 1998 expansion at the rear of the building is artfully fused to the classical main structure in the front. Peterborough, on the other hand, illustrates how exterior spaces can be integrated into the whole building scheme — an important consideration given that most landscape improvements are now proposed to be slashed from the Jones project to save costs.

The Holyoke Public Library has been cited for the excellence of its historic preservation. The comparison of any of the three with the both the current and planned Jones is telling and useful as the town of Amherst considers its options.

In lieu of a visit, one can also compare information about individual public libraries on the federal government’s Institute of Museum and Library Services website.

The comparisons with the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington and the Franklin Public Library show, for example, that program attendance is lower at the Jones, especially among children and young adults. Programs at the Jones are skewed toward adults. One can ask why. In any event, data from the IMLS annual public library survey and the results of my book research indicate that programs, as opposed to book circulation, are becoming increasing important to library use across the country.

Thomas Johnson resides in South Amherst. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Common Place: The Public Library, Civil Society and American Values.”