Sarah McKee: The library’s future starts with a ‘No’ vote

Thursday, October 21, 2021

After years in which major Jones Library systems have aged, let’s be smart about what our beloved library needs; what Amherst residents need from it; and how best to get both. It starts with voting “No” on Nov. 2 on the library referendum.

Amherst voters will decide whether to OK the Town Council’s vote for a $35.3 million library demolition/construction project. Once that wrecking ball smashes the library’s 1993 brick addition, it’s too late to ask: was there another way? So let’s cover a few points now.

First, cost. Town Council’s figure is for capital costs only. It omits interest, sustainability features and more. Furthermore, the pandemic is hiking construction costs sharply. Is it smart to condemn 40% of the library to the landfill, then replace it with new construction, plus constructing yet more for a total of 63,000 square feet, or one-third larger than at present? The state’s construction grant is $13.8 million. Every cost increase falls on the town, grants, or gifts.

Second, priorities. Amherst’s property taxes automatically rise 2 ½ % per year. Our elementary schools’ needs are urgent. To meet them, Amherst will vote later on a tax exclusion override, that is, additional property tax. Is it worth the risk that a vote for this lavish library project now will mean a “No” vote on the schools?

Third, character. The project would gut most of the 1928 library building’s historic interior. Most walls will be removed and rebuilt in different locations. Most carved woodwork, staircases, and original fireplaces? Gone. The elegant office of founding Library Director Charles Green, where his friend Robert Frost walked in with his first editions? Gone also. The cozy “feel” that Library users love? Gone, as well.

Finally, alternatives. Never have the library trustees investigated how best to use the library they have. They merely assumed that the sole possibility was a huge project designed for a user population of 51,000. Yet year-round Amherst residents, who use Amherst’s public libraries, number 19,000 at most. We thus need a smart project that serves Amherst appropriately. Your “No” vote on Nov. 2 will start it.

Sarah McKee