A cornerstone of the argument for the proposed $35.8 million demolition/expansion of the Jones Library has been that the library serves 51,000 individual borrowers every year. One might think that generating this figure would be straightforward: just count how many unique library cards are used each year. It turns out, however, that this foundational number is actually an estimate, not an actual count.
It has now become clear that the Trustees themselves can’t agree on what Town’s population actually is, which seriously undermines the legitimacy of their claims for the need for an expanded library.
In its 2017 grant request to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), the Library Trustees asserted that about 51,000 individual borrowers use the library annually. The grant application states that this number (called the “service population”) was calculated using the population of Amherst (37,819 according to the 2010 Census) plus a figure calculated by Director Sharon Sharry that 35% of the total annual circulation was to non-residents. So the Trustees added 37,819 plus 13,236 (35% of non-resident users) to get 51,055 (rounded to 51,000).
There are many reasons to question the relevancy of using a population figure of 37,819 to estimate the library usage, most particularly the fact that the bulk of that population are college students who use their own institutional libraries. But recently the Trustees themselves have acknowledged that the relevant population is far smaller.
Intensity of Usage and a Population Estimate of 18,593
A new document called the “Jones Library Intensity of Usage” provides an “Amherst Normalized” population figure of 18,593. This new document is included in the Library’s recent Community Preservation Act (CPA) grant request for $1.5 million over five years, to be used in support of Special Collections.
Even if we assume that every one of these 18,593 residents used the library (highly doubtful) and even if we assume that the estimated 35% usage-by-non-residents is accurate, this results in a “service population” of 25,100. That’s less than half the service population being used to justify the demolition of the entire 1993 addition of 18,800 sq. ft., and new construction of over 36,000 sq.ft. for a total expanded library of 65,000 sq. ft.
The library’s new “Intensity of Usage” document states:
“It has been suggested that Amherst’s library need not be enlarged because of the presence of so many college students who do not need to be served by it. To the contrary, an estimate of the permanent, non-student population of Amherst (i.e. the population for which the percentage of residents 15-24 is the same as for the entire state) confirms what the Jones librarians have always known. Amherst’s permanent residents use the Jones Library 40-50% more heavily than its nearest neighbors (almost twice as intensively as Northampton).”
The report presents Amherst’s population at 18,593 with yearly circulation of 445,288. That suggests that there are about 24 library visits per year per patron. However, if one uses the original Trustee figure of 51,000 stated in the grant application, then the figure would be 9 visits per patron per year with a rate 2/3’s of Northampton’s circulation.
What Does the Library’s New Population Figure Really Tell Us?
The data in this new “Intensity of Usage” study actually demonstrate that a demolition/expansion is NOT needed. The library is already meeting the large volume of patron requests within the current footprint and most college students don’t use the town library. Isn’t it time for our community to take a closer look at whether a larger building is really needed?
With current town wide budget problems and climate change looming, resources are scarce. Do we need to destroy 40% of a building that already exists, particularly when patrons’ needs are being met so well now. Patrons who answered a 2015 survey about the library were very pleased with library services yet wanted more parking and more library hours, neither of which will happen in the proposed expansion.
Here are some of the many other possibilities the Trustees can consider:
1) Rescind the grant request now and start over with a smaller expansion in the next granting period.
2) Hire, for the first time, a library space consultant to see how we can utilize the current footprint better right now. The third floor of the Jones with the large Goodwin Room and five study rooms is essentially on lockdown. Rearranging the library and using underutilized square footage could leave space for a much needed Teen Room.
3) Start a capital campaign for a Jones’ refurbishment within the footprint.
4) Develop a mobile library which would shift the need from more costly physical space to true community outreach.
5) Plan to use at other town buildings for some library programs, particularly if a new school is built and the Wildwood School becomes empty.
If the Trustees continue to promote and market their expansion proposal, the MBLC grant will only pay for $13.8 million. The Trustees will have to ask the town for up to $22 million to pay for the rest of the demolition and construction costs and a debt exclusion override will probably be necessary. The Town Council may vote as early as July on whether to accept the grant and whether to bring an override to the voters.
An override for the library may diminish taxpayer’s willingness to pass a second override for the much needed new elementary school.
Does the Town need such a large and costly library?