CANDIDATES FOR LIBRARY TRUSTEE RESPOND TO INDY’S QUESTIONS

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Last week The Indy posed four questions to all of the candidates for Library Trustee. All four candidates are incumbents running unopposed. Nonetheless, they took the time to let voters know the perspectives that they will bring to their work as trustees. Candidates were asked to respond to the following questions and their unedited responses appear below.

Our Questions

1.  What are your ideas about programming at the libraries?

2. Are you willing to consider alternatives to the proposed library expansion? If so, what changes would you propose to improve the building?

3. Do you feel part time staff are adequately compensated? If not, what changes would you make?

4. What is your vision for improving the branch libraries, both the buildings and services?

Candidates’ Responses

LEE EDWARDS

Incumbent Trustees of the Jones Library are running unopposed. Nonetheless, I think it important that I be clear about my rationale for seeking another term. I became a Trustee because I believe in the vital contribution the Jones Library makes to the civic infrastructure of Amherst and to the cultural engagement of all its citizens, whatever their age, economic circumstances, or specific interests. At a time when so many egalitarian principles are besieged and under-valued, a thriving local library is a sign that democracy endures. With regard to your questions about programming, library expansion, compensation for part-time staff, and the branch libraries, my answers are as follows:

1.  What are your ideas about programming at the libraries?

If you come to the Library, whoever you are, you can read a book, a newspaper, a magazine;  you can access a computer; you can learn to speak English; you can become a naturalized citizen; you can sing with your baby; you can hear a talk on a topic that concerns you; you can participate in a book group; you can occasionally play laser tag or miniature golf. If you have a library card, you can borrow a book (not just from the Jones Library, but from any CWMARS library in the state); you can borrow a DVD or a ukulele; you can get a free museum pass; through our new Kanopy program, you can, if you live in Amherst, choose a movie from among thousands offered and stream it on whatever streaming device you have at home

During the last fiscal year, almost 450,000 items were borrowed. The computer work stations were used 25,000 times. 5,200 adults and 7,000 children attended programs, 2,500 people participated in ESL tutoring sessions. Programming shifts in response to changing needs and specific  requests, but these are the backbone of the Library’s current offerings and seem likely to remain so for at least the near future.The Library Trustees are united with the Friends of the Jones Library in seeking necessary private support to underwrite this programming. During the last fiscal year, this united fundraising effort increased this support by 27% over the previous year.

2. Are you willing to consider alternatives to the proposed library expansion?  If so, what changes would you propose to improve the building?

The Library will be receiving funds from the state to help underwrite a much-needed renovation and expansion project. Until such time as these funds are officially appropriated, the Library will continue to work with the architects and the community to create a building that responds to the need for a facility that is efficient and accessible, unlike our current structure, as well as respectful of the building’s historic feel and traditional motifs. Whatever plans go forward, the front facade of the library will be preserved, as will many of the building’s internal features — woodwork, fireplaces, barrel vaulted ceiling — so beloved by many of its patrons. Whatever happens, however, many of the library’s current systems and structures are failing and will need to be replaced: the atrium leaks and cannot really be repaired to work efficiently with a functional HVAC system; the HVAC system needs to be replaced because it is so old that workers familiar with it can’t be found and, in any case, replacement parts are unavailable. If state funds are rejected, these failing structures and systems will still need to be replaced; the cost of these replacements will likely necessitate that the library comply with ADA codes in a way that it currently does not. At the moment, very few of the library’s patrons use wheelchairs, probably because the stacks are too narrow for easy navigation and, in any case, many books are either too high or too low for a patron in a wheelchair to reach; in addition, the elevators are too small to easily accommodate a wheelchair, with second and third floor exits that are actually quite frightening and dangerous. Only a physically efficient and accessible Jones Library will be able to serve Amherst’s future as well as the current building has served Amherst’s past. Using state funds to help offset the creation of such a facility is the prudent choice.

3. Do you feel part time staff are adequately compensated?  If not, what changes would you make?

Compensation for part-time workers is in line with that of other part-time workers for the Town of Amherst. The Library Director — with support from the Trustees — has consistently advocated on behalf of salary increases for all Library employees; it is anticipated that she — and we — will continue to do so within the constraints of the Town’s salary compensation structures.

 4. What is your vision for improving the branch libraries, both the buildings and services?

The Trustees understand that the Munson and North Amherst libraries are beloved by their local communities. We surveyed their staff and patrons last year in order to determine their priorities for future services and programs at these branches. The Trustees will be considering the data from these surveys and devising a response plan at our next few meetings.
I am proud to be part of all these ventures.

TAMSON ELY

1. What are your ideas about programming at the libraries?

 There is a wide variety of programs offered at the Jones, many of which are funded by the Friends of the Jones Library System, and attendance is high. The staff is open for suggestions of other kinds of programs but current space is an issue, especially for children and teens programs. The branches offer some local programs (children’s book club in the summer and adult reading groups), but they have limited space to provide ongoing programs for all ages.

2. Are you willing to consider alternatives to the proposed library expansion? If so, what changes would you propose to improve the building?

It might seem plausible that we could renovate the existing library space and not expand, however that is not the case. We need more space, and rearranging the existing building will not provide this. Staff assessed the need for more space by a detailed and thoughtful study of what each department needs to provide its services (e.g. Reference, ESL), programs (especially children and youth) and all collections. Even if we could create more space by renovating the current building, there would remain serious problems. To make the current building fully accessible, stacks would have to be widened and books removed from the top and bottom shelves, so we would lose stacks and books and therefore the collection would decrease. There are a myriad of other changes necessary for full accessibility. Finally, if you take costs into account, a renovated and fully accessible facility of the current size will most likely cost the town about as much as the funds required with approval of the state grant. And this grant will help create the library our community needs, and provide the increased flexible space for the programs, services and collections everyone appreciates and uses at the Jones.

We can still maintain key elements of the original building while designing an addition which will blend with the historic exterior. A reconfigured and expanded interior will provide the necessary space for more programming, more meeting rooms, safer reading areas and better lighting and full access for everyone who wants to use all areas in the library. 

I have worked in libraries for 40 years, from university to a community college where I was the director for over 30 years. I have witnessed enormous changes in the way people use libraries as new information formats became available and as technology changed how we accessed and used information. Libraries need open and flexible space to provide for current needs and future changes in how people use the library. Seniors can now get help with their devices at the Jones and the branches. Our homeless patrons read newspapers and use a computer. Immigrants come in to read works in their own language and to learn English through our award winning ESL program. These are not the typical library activities of the past, but these are current ones. Our community is changing and the library must change as well to remain the vital public institution in our town which is open to everyone. 

3. Do you feel part time staff are adequately compensated? If not, what changes would you make?

Part time salary rates are determined by the town. The Library Director has the option to choose when part time staff receives raises and, in fact, library part time staff received their raises 6 months sooner than they normally would have. They will receive their next raise on January 1, 2020. The town is working on creating and approving a new wage chart for part time personnel, and the library will be following that new wage chart.

4. What is your vision for improving the branch libraries, both the buildings and services?

The North Amherst Library and the Munson Memorial Building are both owned by the town. The Munson Memorial Building has its own trustees, who coordinate with the town on the safety and maintenance of the building. The library pays rent for the Munson Library part of the Munson Building. However, the staffs at both branches are paid by the library. And Jones Building Maintenance personnel have done some repairs in North Amherst We are working with the town and advocating for major improvements to North Amherst, including accessibility and a bathroom, and for Munson to rearrange the current library to provide better service. Without major renovation and expansion of North Amherst and taking more of the Munson Building for the library (which may not be feasible giving the use of some spaces by LSSE and other departments), the branches cannot add significant services. Both branch libraries with input from their users have completed a Long Range Plan which will help guide future directions for both branches. 

I live within walking distance of the Munson Library. My kids used it endlessly and it is still my main library. I receive holds there, visit with my neighbors, as it is a gathering place of sorts and we all value its wonderful and friendly staff. I know residents of North Amherst feel the same way about their neighborhood branch library. Branch librarians work at the Jones and there is constant communication and support between and among all three libraries. I know we will be working closely with the branches on their long range plans and how best to serve those who depend on these libraries.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my views on our Amherst Libraries, their challenges and their future.

ROBERT PAM

1.  What are your ideas about programming at the libraries?

There are few alternative sources for the kind of programming provided by the Library.  We offer teen and children’s clubs and non-sport activities; English learning groups for the increasing numbers of foreign migrants, students, faculty and their families; computer access or basic help with how to use them; and a huge variety of music, films, lectures and meetings.  We review, add and change these offerings every year and are open to suggestions.  Can we do more?  Sure, with more space and more money.

2. Are you willing to consider alternatives to the proposed library expansion?  If so, what changes would you propose to improve the building?

For much of the town there is a consensus that the library is doing its jobs well, so there is less urgency about change.  But no one has to buzz to unlock our door, and we serve everyone who enters.  That means we have to call the police periodically, and try to supervise our many corners and blind spots.  Staff and patrons accept that some areas are too cold in winter, hot in summer, and wet in rain.  We work around accessibility issues as best we can.  It is costly to keep everything running, and thirty years ago (and 90 years ago for the original parts of the building) neither technology nor sentiment emphasized efficiency and sustainability.  If the Town decides that other projects have a higher priority, that it can’t afford to do everything now, or that the library board and staff won’t try to create the best feasible design for a renovated library, we will work on these problems as quickly and effectively as we can.

3. Do you feel part time staff are adequately compensated?  If not, what changes would you make?

We offer wages within a  pay structure set by the town and paid by the Town within a Town-determined budget.  It includes annual increases and has been adjusted to follow the path to a $15 minimum set by the Commonwealth.  I don’t believe it is unfair.

4. What is your vision for improving the branch libraries, both the buildings and services?

Munson is owned by the Town and managed by a board external to the library.  It’s physical needs are being addressed and while more can always be done, they are not “mission critical.”  It has a wonderful staff, but the greatest limitation on services is its hours of operation.  Those can increase with either more funding or by reducing the staffing and level of service at the Jones.  The latter would be a costly tradeoff to the liveliness and attractiveness of downtown, which I don’t think is a good idea for the library or for Amherst.

North Amherst is also owned by the Town.  The building is too small for its functions, and is located in a peninsula between busy roads which themselves are being redesigned in ways which may not improve the library’s accessibility.  In the best of worlds it would be relocated and joined with another structure to give it space, bathrooms and better accessibility.  Major investments where it is make sense only if its surroundings are supportive.  My comments on services are the same as for the Munson.

AUSTIN SARAT

1.  What are your ideas about programming at the libraries?

Library programs need to be responsive to the needs and desires of the library’s users. They must reach the full range of users, from children to seniors. I am proud of the range of programs offered in our libraries including all the wonderful work done in ESL. I am especially interested in programming that advances civic understanding and explores the nature of democratic citizenship. As I see it, the libraries are especially important as institutions which support and advance democratic values. They are places where young people and old people, the well off and  the economically disadvantaged, native speakers of English and people for whom English is not their first language come together as equals.

2. Are you willing to consider alternatives to the proposed library expansion?  If so, what changes would you propose to improve the building?

I believe that the renovation and expansion plan that the trustees have endorsed is the right plan for the Jones. It will help us to provide needed spaces and services and to enhance what we already do well. The plan will respect the history that has made the Jones such a wonderful library. I will work with Amherst residents and leaders in town as we move further into the design phase of the project. I have always said that my responsibility as a trustee is to serve the public’s library needs. If the town does not support the renovation and expansion plan, I will turn my energies to the needed work of renovating the existing building and repairing an upgrading the building’s structures and operating systems.

3. Do you feel part time staff are adequately compensated?  If not, what changes would you make?

I will work in and through the town’s personnel process to promote fair and equitable compensation for all library employees, including part time staff. 

4. What is your vision for improving the branch libraries, both the buildings and services?

I am a strong supporter of the branch libraries. Both of them play crucial roles in their neighborhoods and in the library system. The town owns the buildings in which our branch libraries are located and I will work with town officials to address building needs. I am grateful for the efforts of residents of North Amherst to address the accessibility needs of the NAL. We have just completed a comprehensive planning process for the branches. In that process, residents of North and South Amherst spoke of their devotion to the branches and their respect and admiration for the staff of those libraries. We will need to work on collection development, technology needs, programming and space utilization.  I look forward to implementing the recommendations of the branch planning process.

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