Why Amherst needs the Jones Library project ASAP

By Kent W. Faerber and Jan Klausner-Wise

The sad state of the main Jones Library facility and its inability to meet the needs of the 227,000 people who visit it each year have been apparent for more than a decade.

On April 5, 2021, members of the Town Council, empowered by Amherst’s new Charter and chosen in contested elections, overwhelmingly (10-2) approved a solution that would meet those needs at a cost to the Town of $15.8 million. Most of those voting for the project were elected on a platform that included support for it.

This solution was proposed by the Library Trustees, also elected by the voters of Amherst, including in two contested elections where slates of candidates who opposed it were defeated.

This decision came after a decade of planning, listening, revising, and innumerable presentations to those Trustees, their Feasibility Committee, their Sustainability Committee (charged with recommending features to make the building environmentally friendly), Town Meeting, the Historical Commission, the Community Preservation Act Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Town Council.

The deliberations were conducted at an extraordinary level of detail that would not be possible in a town-wide plebiscite. The Library’s website, https://www.joneslibrary.org/352/Jones-Building-Project, is a Niagara Falls of information developed during the course of it.

Everyone had an opportunity to be heard during this long process, and those who commented to the Town Council overwhelmingly voiced their support.

It is difficult to imagine an outcome arrived at with more legitimacy in a representative democracy.

The Council made its decision because the project, in a fiscally responsible way, solves a daunting problem of a central component of the Town’s civic infrastructure that has been neglected for too long.

The project will provide the spaces needed each year for the:
* 16,000 hours of ESL tutoring that take place in the Library, serving the 22% of
Amherst’s residents in whose home a language other than English is spoken;
* 25,000 times the library computer workstations are used by those who do not have
access to one, serving the 27% of Amherst’s residents in poverty;
* 1,000 times a library meeting room is requested to support the Town’s unique civic life;
* Programs for the 7,200 children and 5,000 adults who come to the library because it is the center of Amherst’s community; especially programs for teens who have no space of their own to attract them to the library;
* All in addition to the lending of 450,000 books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, musical instruments, eReaders, puppets, kits, etc.

The project will make one of the most used Town facilities accessible to those with physical limitations. It will also welcome those who are new to its library culture and are mystified by the present building’s rabbit warren of confusingly hard-to-find spaces, some of which feel uncomfortably unsafe.

It will preserve and restore one of the Town’s historic landmarks (including spaces in the original 1928 building not now accessible to the public), and provide secure protection for all of the holdings of the internationally recognized Special Collections – presently at risk from the building’s ancient HVAC system.

It will make the entire building one of the most climate-friendly in Town.

The cost to the Town is NOT $35.3 million. The state Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has committed $13.8 million to the project and the Library Trustees have pledged to raise $6.6 million (guaranteed by their $9 million endowment).

The net $15.8 million cost to the Town is approximately the same as a detailed, professional estimate of the cost to do only basic repairs required by almost 30 years of deferred maintenance, including bringing the building into required compliance with accessibility codes. Doing nothing is not an option. The Town must spend this amount if it wants to use the building for its library, and such amount, then, is not available for other purposes. For the same cost, the benefits of the proposed project could hardly stand in greater contrast.

The MBLC is ready to send the Town the first $2.7 of its $13.8 million grant; 100 early donors are ready to send the first payments on their pledges which total almost $1 million; $1 million in CPA funds are waiting to be used, and a Capital Campaign Committee is ready to resume its fundraising for the $6.6 million portion of the cost of the project. And, of course, the cost of the project continues to escalate as more time is wasted.

The Jones Library project should be allowed to proceed as soon as possible.