Guest column by Austin Sarat and Sharon Sharry: How Jones Library remains the ‘hearth and soul” of our community

  • Front entrance at Jones Library. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Sometimes, in the worst of times, new possibilities are born. That simple idea is vividly instantiated in the history of Amherst’s Jones Library, whose origin is tied to a pandemic not unlike our unfolding coronavirus crisis.

As Bruce Watson notes in his wonderful book, “Hearth and Soul: A History of the Jones Library at One Hundred,” the creation of the Jones can be traced directly to the 1918-19 pandemic. Across the country the public libraries that existed at that time were shuttered, but Amherst’s library was born.

Watson tells the story of Samuel Jones, whose estate provided the funds needed to establish the town library. Jones wanted his fortune to go to his wife and son. But his will also said that “In the event that no children survive me, or all die before the age of twenty-one years,” the family share should go to the town of Amherst to create a “free public library.”

In December 1918, several years after the death of his wife, the so-called “Spanish flu” took the life of Jones’s child. As a result, the Jones inheritance passed on to Amherst. And, less than one year later, in 1919, the commonwealth of Massachusetts officially incorporated the Jones library.

As was the case a century ago, cities and towns across our country have now shuttered their public libraries as the coronavirus spread, displacing countless citizens for whom they provide a lifeline. Amherst, too, has closed its library buildings. But this pandemic has not stopped librarians from continuing to do their vital work. Technology combined with the library staff’s grit, determination and creativity has allowed much of what they do to continue.

As a result of their dedication and efforts, the Jones Library continues to serve Amherst residents with e-books and e-audio, digital magazines, streaming films and music, online courses and more. Patrons can follow Facebook pages and Instagram accounts to learn what books our library staff are reading at home, to see updates from the kid’s literature world, and to catch up on the latest teen art challenges.

Library staff have been calling and emailing many patrons daily since the buildings closed. They are focusing on those who have traditionally relied on the Homebound program, which delivers materials to people unable to come to the library, and they are reaching out to elderly patrons who used to frequent the Jones.

Since the library staff cannot access our collection, they are now relying on Amherst Books to deliver books (paid for by the library) to Homebound patrons. This partnership helps sustain another beloved local institution, our bookstore, and brings books to readers who in turn are sustained during this time of intense physical isolation.

Librarians are also letting patrons know about library or non-library online events in which they might have an interest — everything from ukulele classes, author interviews, and BSO concerts, to the latest shows on Netflix. The weekly newsletter (emailed to over 10,000 patrons and continuing to appear in our inboxes during this pandemic) lists many online resources that are available from the library, some of them new to our area. Staff are collaborating to livestream interviews with area authors and are continuing to provide a full range of reference services.

Special Collections librarians are looking to a future when people will want to know what it was like to live through our public health crisis. They are documenting this historic time and its effects on Amherst.

The English as a Second Language Center has maintained most of its scheduled conversation circles by offering them online. It has been creating short videos for beginning literacy classes to help reduce the stress of social isolation. The “students” in this Center range widely in age, from children to our elderly.

Our online presence continues the vital work of public libraries at a time when we need them most. In the past, we have described the Jones, the Munson, the North Amherst Library as magic places where children first encounter the wonders that books make possible and adults discover unexpected treasures while browsing the collection. They are places where hospitality comes alive when patrons encounter the friendliness of our extraordinary staff who, every day, go out of their way to know, not just to serve, those with whom they interact.

Amherst’s libraries are also transformational places where English language learners come to master the complexities of a second language and immigrants and residents study to become citizens. And they are essential places where vulnerable and disadvantaged people who need help with the challenges of daily life find resources which they would not otherwise get.

In Amherst’s libraries, homeless people find refuge and lonely people find companionship. They are places where book lovers find nurturance in a world where some question the value of books.

Libraries also offer the hope that comes alive in books and materials which record the moments when what was once thought impossible is conquered by the human imagination. They honor our varied pasts and point us toward the future.

And, along with the public schools, Amherst’s libraries are the town’s most democratic places where the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the longtime resident and newcomer interact and are served as equals. They are places where facts matter, where civility reigns, and where the doors are open to everyone.

While our doors may no longer be open, the magic that libraries make possible, the hospitality they afford, the transformational and essential work they do, and the democratic ideas they honor all continue. And they will continue until that day in the not too distant future when we can all return to the buildings which house the “hearth and soul” of our community.

Austin Sarat is president of the Jones Library board of trustees. Sharon Sharry is the library’s director.