Jones Library director:  2012 library space report a poor Plan B

  • Front entrance at Jones Library. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/13/2022 9:18:19 PM

AMHERST — Aggressive weeding of library assets to reduce the collection, centralizing storage spaces and having special collections off site were among recommendations offered to elected trustees and staff at the Jones Library a decade ago as means of improving operations at the 48,000-square-foot building at 43 Amity St.

While the 2012 report from Anna Popp, a representative of the Massachusetts Library System, describes a roadmap for changes that could be undertaken, Library Director Sharon Sharry said in an interview Thursday that the space-optimization information provided in the 15-page document should be seen largely as a precursor to decisions trustees made to seek financing from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners for a renovated and expanded building.

“This was used in the process of leading up to whether to make an application for a construction grant,” Sharry said. Noting that the report was completed within her first year as director, she said library trustees opted against “moving furniture and walls (which) would do little to address larger safety and operating issues the library needs to address.”

The written report was filed following a tour of the building that Popp took and given to the Buildings and Facilities Committee, which is charged with reviewing current and future space needs, and recommendations that focused on culling outdated materials from the collection were followed, Sharry said.

“It was a way for me to say to staff that they need to take weeding seriously,” Sharry said.

In the time since, and with other state library officials identifying dysfunctions at the Jones, trustees have pursued expansion and renovation of the 1928 building, with nearly two-thirds of voters supporting the project when it was on the ballot in November 2021. The project is not about just more space — increasing the building to 63,000 square feet — but also modernizing it by upgrading mechanical systems and doing needed repairs, as well as meeting municipal climate goals, Sharry said.

But with the estimated cost of the project increasing from $36.3 million to $46.4 million, attributable to inflation and delays that could push the project going out to bid as late as Nov. 17, 2023, project backers have focused on increasing fundraising and cutting costs, along with pursuing more state funding.

Critics, of the expansion project, however, are seeing the Popp report as the foundation for a backup plan, or a Plan B.

It was recently the subject of an opinion piece published in the Gazette, Amherst Bulletin and Amherst Indy by resident Jeff Lee, [“Unpublished Jones space plan offers alternatives to expansion”], who said he obtained the Popp report through a Freedom of Information Act request after Austin Sarat, the trustees president, referenced it at a recent meeting.

Lee’s piece contends that the current project plans may not be necessary and could be abandoned in favor of a less expensive alternative.

Sharry, though, notes that the town has already committed $15.8 million through a borrowing authorization, and that even with rising overall costs, that has not changed. “That’s the number town voters should focus on,” Sharry said.

The $13.9 million grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners is being supplemented with fundraising and $1 million from the town’s Community Preservation Act account, and Sharry praised state Rep. Mindy Domb- D-Amherst, for being at the forefront of legislators seeking more funding for local projects.

Repair estimates alone run from $14.4 million to $16.8 million, though are likely higher with inflation; and making the building fully accessible will likely be required if safety issues and systems issues are addressed under any project.

Popp’s report begins by noting that its contents are not recommendations, and come with no mandates.

“Your organization and your staff are not required to implement all or any of the suggestions included herein,” Popp wrote.

The report’s sections include collection assessment, space reassessment and staff requests.

In the report, Popp calls the collection “very large” and advises aggressive weeding of 64,848 items that would get the library into compliance with the Basic level of service using Wisconsin Public Library Standards. Reducing the collection to 151,200 items from 216,048 items would mean tossing 34,000 printed volumes, freeing 600 to 1,100 shelves.

Space reassessments include finding more comfortable places to work, read and play; areas where drink and food can be consumed on site and laptop, tablet and gadget lending can be done; and centralizing storage and office space recovered from underused areas of the building.

Under staff requests, Popp notes the library staff should avoid using prime real estate in the building for administrative functions. “This is space that is not available to patrons, the people for whom the building was erected. I have attempted to make these areas available to users and find alternate attractive and functional areas for staff.”

The report also includes maps showing that the children’s area, audiovisual section and a new lounge could be located on the ground, or basement level, the director’s office would be moved to the trustees room on the third floor, and that the former office space would become a shop and a cafe.

The practicality of many of the ideas is questioned by Sharry, who said she wouldn’t put the children’s room in the basement, and that even with space freed up, the library would have to close to rearrange the way its space is used. “Shelves don’t just pick up like chairs,” Sharry said.

To create teen space, the children’s room would be smaller, and no more room would be added for the for English as a Second Language program as it would under the expansion project.

The idea that there is sufficient space within the existing building has been a point of contention, including a presentation from former library Trustee Carol Gray, Lee’s spouse, at Annual Town Meeting in May 2016, in which she showed slides — despite being ruled out of order by the moderator — indicating that the third floor of the building, which is now being used for storage, could provide ample space for other library uses. Gray made the presentation as a rejoinder to architect John Kuhn’s contention that an expansion of the building to 68,000 square feet was about as compact a library project as possible.

The Popp report was never hidden, Sharry said, and was attached to the minutes of the Buildings and Facilities Committee at the time, and all trustees who began making decisions toward the expansion project were aware of it.

Since Lee’s opinion piece, others have argued in support of the alternative, including Ken Rosenthal of Sunset Avenue, who told Town Manager Paul Bockelman at Friday’s Cuppa Joe gathering that due to its apparent unaffordability, the project direction should change that and the Popp report is a place to start.

“Why wouldn’t you on the Library Development Building Committee say, let’s look at that?” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal also penned a letter to the Gazette. “The library’s leadership should stop that development work right away,” he wrote. “Instead, it should ask its planners to spend that money to develop the detailed suggestions in the Anna Popp report.”

But Sharry said even to pursue that she would need to hire an architect to handle designs at a significant cost, before getting into the work that would lead to an improved building. Once there are expenses such as replacing the HVAC system and atrium roof, various Americans with Disabilities Act requirements would kick in, leading to more expenses, and the building would also continue to be a big energy user.

“This building, as is, can’t be made net zero,” Sharry said. “A Plan B doesn’t speak to the town’s sustainability goals at all.”

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