Guest columnist Alex Kent: Build a library for all

  • Staff photo/Ken Heidel

Published: 4/14/2021 2:36:50 PM

My father has often said, “You could tear down just about every building on a campus and still have a university … as long as you leave the library.”

I agree. The library is by far the most important building on any campus. The same holds true for a town. Even more so than Town Hall itself, the centerpiece of Amherst is and must remain the Jones Library. The proposed renovation and expansion of the Jones is the surest way to guarantee that the library will remain centrally relevant to Amherst for decades to come.

Town residents Carol Gray and Vincent O’Connor have launched a petition drive to overturn the Amherst Town Council’s decision to go forward with the project. They argue that Amherst has more urgent capital projects, that the project will result in a property tax increase, and that smaller and cheaper improvements can be made to the existing library.

While Amherst does indeed need a new fire house, public works complex, and elementary school, it is the free public library that is the one building that is truly open and inviting to everyone. It is of vital importance to people of all ages and socioeconomic background. School children go to the library to do their homework in safety and with the support of caring adults. Teens may find a refuge from the stresses of finding their way into adulthood. Adults explore the broad range of knowledge and creativity.

And more. For many people recently released from incarceration, the public library is an essential first stop for all kinds of information and support. For the unhoused, the library provides lifesaving shelter from the cold of winter and heat of summer. The library archives the sum total of what makes Amherst unique, including precious, irreplaceable documents and other materials that speak to the town’s history and contributions in every sphere of American history and letters.

To everyone, the library is one of the clearest and most immediate emblems of a free, open, and democratic society. However, to borrow a time-worn phrase, “freedom isn’t free.” The project of rebuilding the Jones Library will be expensive. But it will also be worth it. Here’s what Town Councilor Dorothy Pam says about the library: “When I first visited the Jones Library over 10 years ago….I looked at the library with new eyes. Dehumidifiers sat in damp circles on old carpets in the Children’s rooms, tattered books sat on the shelves, the Art Gallery room was too small, the main hall was so cluttered that the beauty of the atrium was obliterated, the public bathroom smelled. I was dismayed at how shabby and rundown the Jones was and wondered at a town that did not support its most important building … It was clear to me that the Jones Library needed a major overhaul.”

I urge Amherst to reject Gray and O’Connor’s petition and to join with the Town Council in emphatically supporting the rebuilding of the Jones Library.

Alex Kent lives in Amherst.

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