Guest columnist Michele Miller: An expanded vision of the Jones Library

  • Jones Library JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 9/29/2021 2:30:21 PM

On the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1928, Amherst residents gathered inside the reading room of the newly constructed Jones Library for a dedication ceremony. John Mason Tyler, an original trustee and passionate advocate for the library, said to the people, “I believe that Mr. Jones gave this library to the town to form a center in and around which we might gather and rally, renew our strength, and work together, to make it what our fathers dimly foresaw and hoped for, and never saw.”

While we may not agree on the specifics of the proposed library plan, or have questions about the process, one thing is certain: Our library needs a major capital injection to bring it into the 21st century. This project is a tremendous way to serve and enrich the Amherst community, and an opportunity to bring us together to achieve our shared goals of being an environmentally responsible, anti-racist community.

Libraries have always been a beating heart for the communities they serve, and on the front line of social justice. The first free modern public library was opened in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, with the explicit purpose of “establishing a free library open to all classes of the community.” Today there are over 9,000 public libraries in the United States, many of which are in desperate need of attention.

In fact, according to a 2021 brief by The American Library Association, the average public library is 40 years old, and hundreds are more than 100 years old. The ALA also reported that public libraries in the U.S. need $32 billion for construction and renovation. (In New York City alone, it is estimated that libraries will require a $1.1 billion investment to meet the needs of the communities they serve.)

The ALA brief concluded that at current levels of funding, based on nationwide capital expenditures over the last five years, it would take more than 25 years to meet today’s estimated national needs.

The Jones library was established in 1919 by a fund set up in the will of lumberman Samuel Minot Jones, who grew up in Amherst. The trustees and architects of the Amity Street building purposefully designed the Jones to look more like a home than a public space. Specifically, the intention was for the library to “Play the role of Mother Amherst welcoming her children home.”

In today’s times, what does it mean for our library to “Play the role of Mother Amherst welcoming her children home?”

To this day, Amherst is a white enclave. However, over 100 years later, its children represent a diversity of backgrounds and identities that far exceed anything the founding leaders of the Jones Library could have imagined. Playing the role of welcoming children home takes on a whole new meaning today, and it’s our responsibility (especially us white residents) to think critically and thoughtfully about how we can do this.

Many libraries across the country are taking steps to create more equitable, diverse, inclusive, and accessible spaces, and expanding their vision of the library, as a book lender, to something of greater significance and meaning to the communities they serve.

The ALA highlights some culturally equitable practices that can eliminate barriers and create greater accessibility, including:

■Offering new collections of books that sincerely present new cultural experiences across marginalized communities.

■Providing library service support to community events that highlight different cultures.

■Planning and implementing new services to respond to community needs.

■ Creating a diverse library staff to allow more people to see themselves represented in the physical space.

This past year the Community Safety Working Group — a committee formed to recommend changes to our public safety system in the wake of George Floyd’s death — proposed several powerful suggestions, including a Youth Empowerment Center and a BIPOC Cultural Center, for making our community a place where all people feel safe and included. I fully support both of these recommendations, and will continue to advocate for their creation.

However, free standing capital projects like these take time to plan and we don’t have to wait. Our new library is the perfect opportunity to begin working on these goals now! We can do this by fully supporting the creation of a robust youth area, and dedicating resources toward the development of youth programs, and by creating spaces and opportunities to promote cultural diversity, equity, and inclusion through the lens of BIPOC community members.

If the library renovation and expansion project is approved, we’ll have a rare opportunity where everything is being removed from the building and how we expand and put the building back together — programming spaces, how collections are organized, art on display — can better reflect the voices of the community. The Jones Library Building Committee being created by the town for this project includes a position held by a BIPOC member of the public with experience in community engagement, as well as a position for a community member with experience in sustainability.

What if we build on the excellent work of the Jones Library trustees and the Community Safety Working Group, and broadcast our vision of being an anti-racist, pluralistic community by renaming the renovated space, “Jones Community Library and Cultural Center,” and truly envisioning a library that, in the words of Andrew Carnegie, “Outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people?”

If you would like to apply for the Jones Library Building Committee please fill out the Community Activity Form on the town’s website, amherstma.gov.

Michele Miller is an Amherst resident.


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