Alex Kent: Amherst should be bold and build library for all

  • Staff photo/Ken Heidel

Published: 11/27/2020 1:33:56 PM

As an Amherst resident whose home is a five-minute walk from the Jones Library, I fully support the project to renovate and expand the library. I believe that the funds can be found both to build, operate and maintain a new Jones Library.

The 1993 addition and renovation has largely been a failure: The atrium roof leaks and can be unbearably hot in the summer. Traffic flow through the library is poor, bordering on chaotic. The downstairs stacks can induce claustrophobia and the space is especially unwelcoming to people with physical disabilities. It is estimated that it would cost $14 to $16 million to rebuild the atrium, make the building ADA-compliant and implement other necessary improvements. Given the choice, I say tear most of the building down.

I consider the original building to be lacking in both architectural and historical merit. The building is around 100 years old and, while it boasts some well-crafted woodwork (which might be preserved in a new building), the tone of the building, with its faux-Chippendale pediment and ersatz colonial look, calls nothing so much to mind as “Early American” furniture from Sears Roebuck of 60 to 70 years ago. The only colonial-style public buildings in Amherst are the Jones and, arguably, the fire station. Both were built nearly 150 years after this country had ceased being a colony.

I believe that Amherst needs a large, inclusive and inspiring public space. A library, especially these days, is far more than a collection of books and other media. A library’s collection is almost beside the point: The purpose of a public library is to create a grand common space that is accessible to and welcoming of the entire community. While a library is a place where information is made available to everyone, it is also a forum where people from all walks of life see and mingle with one another, a place for random and serendipitous encounters. A library should affirm all the good reasons for living in a community made up of many different kinds of people.

Moreover, a library should inspire awe in those who use it, whether they are young or old, rich or poor, able or differently-abled. The space should proudly say, “this community came together, made sacrifices, commitments and labored hard with a sense of common purpose to create this extraordinary space.” I feel a delightful shiver of joy every time I enter a great library, whether it is the incomparable New York Public on 42nd Street or the Forbes in Northampton. Amherst should have no less.

Perhaps the proponents of the renovation and expansion of the Jones Library need to create a more compelling narrative explaining why this project is needed. The public should be particularly interested in hearing from the many library patrons, especially those who have been marginalized or disadvantaged, who use the library’s services: ESL classes, access to the internet, assistance in career development, programs for children, teens and the elderly, information about government services, etc. Each library patron has a story. Proponents of the library project should make sure that those stories are heard and their impact felt, especially by prospective donors.

In the past, public libraries were built largely with funds bequeathed by 19th-century plutocrats. That’s why the names Astor, Lenox and Tilden are carved into the marble above the portico of the New York Public Library. Whatever you might say about the character of those who have made or inherited great wealth (including financier and right-wing Republican Stephen A. Schwarzman, whose $100 million donation earned him the right to put his name on the Main Branch of the New York Public Library), they do have a lot of money, and with some coaxing, they can be encouraged to put it to use for the good of the public. The Trustees and Friends of the Jones Library should approach affluent individuals within and beyond our community to ask for the money to rebuild the library. Moving personal stories told by individual patrons about why the library is important to them (ideally shared in person at post-pandemic gatherings) will persuade wealthy people to open their hearts and their checkbooks.

And open them they should: By their very nature, public libraries are redistributive. They draw on resources of money to promote the distribution of knowledge, to promote civic engagement and to elevate people across the community.

That is why I support the trustees of the Jones Library and applaud their often-scorned efforts to reimagine and rebuild the library. Even in these difficult times — especially in these difficult times — Amherst should be bold and find the money to build a library for all.

Alex Kent is an Amherst resident.
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