Open Letter To Town Councilors: Late Questions About The Jones Library

Jones Library. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

As you approach the imposed decision point for committing the Town to the Jones Library demolition/expansion proposal — both financially and conceptually — I want to propose a series of questions I hope you will ask about the proposal. You have been grappling with this for a long time and there has been much public comment. Like other writers, I oppose the Library Trustees’ proposal for a significantly larger building on the current Amity Street site. But I do not oppose expansion on principle; and I have proposed a possible solution to this which I sketch out at the end of this letter. Whether or not you find my proposal attractive, it does suggest several questions that the Town Council, as the only body charged with looking at the Town as a whole, should ask prior to your vote.

  1.  Is it wise to make a decision about the Jones proposal prior to your decisions about the other capital projects —the elementary school, public works depot, and fire station? I say “No.” While the capital projects appear as separate, they are synergistically connected by the land and buildings they might occupy and those they might vacate. There is an order to your consideration of them that allows you to take advantage of this synergy for the financial, cultural and physical benefit of the Town. The time to consider the Jones proposal is after you have made your decisions about the other capital projects and have a clearer picture of what town properties, if any, are available to participate in library expansion. 

2. Are you clear about what the demolition/expansion project entails? I am not. At one time, some years ago, I thought I understood what vision the Trustees had and on what metrics they based their needs for additional space. But now I feel caught between too much information on the website and too much puffery in the local press. It is not at all clear what actual plan for an expanded library the trustees are asking the Town Council to endorse. It seems to me that you are being asked to endorse a blank check.

3. Do you know and share the Trustees’ understanding of how the Jones Library ought to participate in the future civic and cultural life of the Town? Nowhere in their proposal do I find any ideas about how the Jones relates to its branches, the great college libraries available to residents, or other public spaces in town. The Jones sees its mission as much in programming as it does in its holdings. This is great, but as I have written elsewhere, the Town has never thought as a whole about civic and cultural programming, allowing various entities to claim proprietary rights to aspects of it. 

For example, I have watched over fifty years as “adult education” became “leisure services” and now seems to be “department of recreation.” I don’t know whether these shifting titles also represent shifting emphases in programming. A new organization, “Amherst Neighbors” (to which I belong), has begun offering online programming, since its original services to home-owning seniors cannot be provided during the pandemic. Some of this programming seems to duplicate programs and services that the Senior Center has offered in the past. I believe that Amherst Neighbors and the Senior Center are in close contact about their offerings, but I am not aware that the Jones is part of that burgeoning consortium. 

In short, while the Jones emphasis on programming is welcome, and its history of programming is exemplary, it is hard for you to know whether it justifies the amount of new space the Trustees are asking you to approve. 

4. Finally, are you comfortable with the Trustees’ use of the library endowment as surety for its fundraising? Are you satisfied that you understand the demands that a larger Jones Library would put on the Town’s operating budget? Have you considered comparing the costs of restoring the library’s hours as an alternative to building more space? 

I hope that answering these questions will help you decide whether you are prepared to vote on the Trustees’ proposal in the coming weeks. But I also want to restate my vision — not to recommend it necessarily but to remind you that there are other possibilities that would serve the town better than the Trustees’ expansion/demolition project.

Imagine a Jones Library on Amity Street as an expanded home for its special collections and research facilities, with ample space for adult programming, much of which would be offered in conjunction with the Amherst Historical Society and the museum at the Strong House. The human scale of its building would allow its linkage to the Strong House and the beautiful grounds between them. And there would be space for the Jones to serve as a downtown cultural and meeting center.

Imagine a Wildwood building that houses the Jones circulating collections, family and children’s programming and the Amherst Senior Center in an easily accessible facility with much room to grow in, all on one floor!

Imagine a Jones Library System that comprises the Jones Library, the Munson Library, the renovated North Amherst Library and the new Wildwood Library, shared with the Senior Center.

If you find any variations on this theme worthwhile for your further consideration, please don’t close them off by committing yourself to the current expansion/demolition scheme.

Michael Greenebaum

Michael Greenebaum was Principal of Mark’s Meadow School from 1970 to 1991, and from 1974 taught Organization Studies in the Higher Education Center at the UMass School of Education.  He served in Town Meeting from 1992, was on the first Charter Commission in 1993, and served on several town committees including the Town Commercial Relations Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee.

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