Daniel Lombardo: Former Special Collections curator weighs in on Jones Library’s history 

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Published: 11/30/2020 2:01:45 PM

I’d like to address three major misconceptions in Alex Kent’s guest column, “Amherst should be bold and build a library for all” (Nov. 28). I was the curator of Special Collections at the Jones Library for 17 years, from 1982 to 1999, years that included the 1993 renovation.

First, if the proposed renovation and expansion of the Jones Library is to go through, it’s imperative that the purpose of a public library be clearly defined and understood. Mr. Kent states, “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.” The first library association in Amherst was organized in 1793. According to “A History of Amherst, Massachusetts,” by Carpenter and Morehouse (1896), “The residents of Amherst recognized even in the earlier times the value of the public library as a source of educational improvement.” When the public library became a national institution, the purpose was “to improve literacy, share knowledge, and provide education and entertainment.”

Every professional library science source states as such. Further, each update of the statement in professional sources recognizes the vast expansion of both knowledge and amount of non-book resources that transmit it. The primary goals are still education, information, individual improvement and recreation. The collections of the Jones Library include unique resources on Julius Lester and the Civil Rights Movement, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and the industrial, agricultural, educational, religious and cultural past of the town. These collections are certainly not “beside the point.”

Secondly, Mr. Kent considers “the original building to be lacking in both architectural and historical merit.” The building is, in fact, a very fine example of the Colonial Revival Movement in architecture, examples of which abound in Amherst and define the architectural style of the town in the 20th century. The architectural firm of Putnam and Cox designed the Jones, as well as the Jeffrey Amherst Inn on the Common, and numerous fine Amherst College buildings that line South Pleasant Street, Northampton Road, and College Street.

Mr. Kent’s third misconception is that “The 1993 addition and renovation has largely been a failure.” Before that renovation, there was only one, inadequate, public meeting space. The large multi-use, air-conditioned space that was added has served well. Pre-renovation, the Special Collections Department consisted of seven rooms, split on two floors, with only one staff member scheduled to supervise all areas. Post-renovation, it was consolidated into a stunning facility, with a separate exhibition room, a public study space, and secured stacks, all fully climate controlled for the first time.

Pre-renovation, most public rooms were small and spread, purposely, as they would be in a cozy home. The new atrium tied all the departments together and provided a spacious light place for people to meet and relax. Moreover, the 1993 renovation provided the Jones with two accessible elevators for the first time. The renovation was intended to provide for 20 years of growth, and that is precisely what it did. That the atrium is now cluttered with stacks is evidence that the intention of the 1993 renovation was fulfilled; more space is needed. This is not failure. 

Like Mr. Kent, I applaud the Jones Library’s efforts to re-imagine the library — whether or not it is for a rebuild or a renovation. For 100 years, the Jones Library has been one of the finest public libraries in the state, in a facility that is a jewel of early 20th century Colonial Revival architecture. I hope it can continue for another 100 years, adapting to the future, honoring its past and keeping a clear eye on its purpose.

Daniel Lombardo lives in Westhampton.


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