Opinion: Jones Library, Why All The Secrecy?


Photo: https://www.joneslibrary.org/

The Jones Library states that its mission is to serve as a hub “where books are celebrated and all members of the community can enhance their educational, cultural, and lifelong learning pursuits.”

Never mind that the library has reduced its print holdings count by more than 49,000 items since 2012.  Ironically, its commitment to enhancing the public’s knowledge of library leadership’s decision-making process is practically nil.

While the Jones Trustees’ board and committee meetings are conducted over Zoom, the trustees have steadfastly refused (with the exception of the Buildings & Facilities Committee) to record their meetings and post them to a YouTube channel where they can be accessed by the public.  By contrast, all other Amherst government meetings are recorded and uploaded to YouTube the following Friday. Amherst School Committee meetings are recorded and uploaded by Amherst Media.

As the Washington Post slogan reminds us, “Democracy dies in darkness,” and the light shining on Jones Library meetings is disturbingly inadequate.  Board President Austin Sarat announced at the September 20 Trustees meeting that there was one attendee present (this reporter).  The meeting’s deliberations went almost completely unmonitored – both by the public and by town officials who so readily subsidize library expenses.

Why the secrecy? Could it be that the Jones Library has a $46.1 million taxpayer-supported renovation-expansion project on the line, and it wants to make sure that any reports on library operations are delivered with a positive spin?

The Trustees have had some success in avoiding transparency and suppressing negative publicity.  It has only been through extra efforts by members of the public that questionable library actions and heavy-handed political strategizing have come to light.

Outside of public view, library leaders formulated a plan to seek state funding to tear down a $5 million addition that was less than 30 years old and expand the size of the library by an additional 15,000 sq. ft., committing Amherst to at least $25 million, including borrowing costs, from its capital budget. This expensive enlargement was pushed forward despite the undisclosed facts that the Library had reduced its space needs by eliminating more than 20% of its print holdings, had seen annual patron visits decline by more than 40% since 2006, and that there had never been a public outcry for a larger library.

A citizen Public Record Request revealed the existence of a recommendation by Library Space Consultant Anna Popp for the Jones to meet its programming needs within the building’s existing footprint.  This report had not been discussed at any open meetings and had been filed away out of sight by library leaders.

See related Unpublished Jones Library Space Plan Proposes Alternatives To Costly Expansion

Former Library Trustee President Sarah McKee has repeatedly pointed out that library leaders have failed to follow state regulations requiring early review of adverse effects to a historical property and even neglected to disclose in their construction grant application that the Jones Library is listed in MACRIS which serves as the Massachusetts registry of historical assets.

The Jones Library state construction grant application failed to acknowledge that the building is a state and nationally registered historic property.  Source: joneslibrary.org

The Jones Library Building Committee (JLBC) which is composed of library trustees, town officials, residents, designers and project managers has been only slightly more transparent.  The committee records its meetings that are conducted via Zoom but has recently held two in-person-only meetings at the Library.  At the first, an alert attendee heard the project manager refer to plans to speed up the building permit process to avoid the need to comply with a new state building code taking effect on July 1.  Research found that the building code was a new stretch energy code, and the building project was aiming to bypass its more stringent requirements, despite having been awarded a $1 million federal grant for sustainability improvements. It took citizen questioning and involvement by the Town Building Inspector to get the JLBC to agree to design to the new energy code.

See related Library Project Pivots To New Energy Code, Denies Greenwashing

Last week the JLBC held a second in-person-only meeting. Responding to a citizen request that the meeting be held over Zoom as well as in-person, Town Manager Paul Bockelman explained that the meeting was being held in person to allow committee members to view and select building materials.  He said that in-person meetings are not recorded due to staff limitations.

Given the fundamental importance of transparency and public access to the democratic process, the town and library should try harder.  The Town Room in Town Hall where Town Council meetings are held is fully equipped to allow hybrid (simultaneous in-person and Zoom) meetings.  Basic equipment needed to support hybrid government meetings is not overly expensive and could easily be added to the Woodbury Room at the Jones Library, as well as additional rooms in town-owned buildings.  I have attended a talk in a UMass classroom where hybrid participation was enabled using a $1000-dollar smart webcam/microphone from Owl Labs that automatically rotates to focus on whomever is speaking.  I personally have run a hybrid and recorded music and storytelling event using only a laptop, an external monitor, a portable speaker and a USB microphone.

If the Jones Library can demand $25 million in expansion funding from the town and spend tens of thousands to hire actor Dennis Quaid to narrate a promotional video, it can afford to make one of its rooms hybrid-meeting-ready.  And the Board of Trustees and Director can invest the little effort needed to record library meetings and upload them to YouTube for public learning and vigilance.

A recorded hybrid Amherst Town Council meeting.  Source: amherstma.gov
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1 thought on “Opinion: Jones Library, Why All The Secrecy?

  1. thank you Jeff. I appreciate your efforts to keep Amherst residents informed regarding the Jones library expansion.

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