I live a few minutes’ walk from the Jones Library in Amherst, one of the finest town libraries I have ever seen. The library has announced expansion plans designed to improve patron access, especially for people with disabilities and mobility challenges. To be sure, the Jones Library must be made more accessible for all patrons. At the same time, I think library expansion plans are too large, too costly, and most significantly, overlook another, as yet unexplored, way to improve library access.
The library can be made more accessible across the community at modest cost and with potentially major impact by creating one or more bookmobiles. I propose more than just a truck that carries books, but an up-to-date, full-service extension of the library, essentially a mobile community center.
In this concept, a full-size van, small truck, or even a converted school bus would carry the library’s services to communities that, for economic and other reasons, currently have the least access to the library. The mobile library would provide books and other media, of course, but it could do much more.
Circulating through lower-income neighborhoods, senior communities, and housing complexes, the mobile library would provide internet access through computer terminals carried on board, reading circles for children, and a broad selection of books in Spanish and other languages. It could carry a supply of tax, immigration, and other official forms and someone to help fill them out.
The mobile library could be equipped with an extendable awning and some lightweight folding chairs and tables to become a pop-up community center for children’s story hours (in favorable weather), presentations about library resources, literacy workshops, or just sitting for a while with a good book. Why not carry a coffee maker and offer snacks?
I note that then-Jones Library Board of Trustees candidate Terry Johnson made a similar proposal in 2017.
In community listening circles, organizers of the Common Share Food Co-op startup have learned that there are many people in Amherst and beyond who do not have ready access to a car. They rely instead on buses and other forms of transportation. And even if a member of the community has a car, no amount of renovation to the Jones Library is going to make downtown parking and access to the library a snap. A mobile library could address these and other challenges.
It’s great to be able to meet people at the library. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the library could meet people where they live as well?
Alex Kent is a self-employed Japanese translator who has lived in Amherst since 2001