In Praise of the Jones Library

2021-22 Language Assistant Valentin Guergueb recalls falling in love with the Jones Library at 43 Amity Street.

Among the many resources our Valley offers, it has always surprised me to see how few Amherst students were members of the Jones Library. Of course, many of you readers may already be familiar with this endearing institution that graces our small town. However, for the newcomers, the skeptics, or the busy, I’d like to share some of the many reasons why I find the Jones so precious.

In front of Amherst Coffee and Amherst Cinemas, two equally important centers of the town’s intelligentsia, stands the main building of our small library system. An historic edifice from the 1920’s, it welcomes visitors with a New-England style carved pineapple as a symbol of hospitality. And indeed, friendly people work there. The whole place has been designed with the aim of making you feel at home: carpets, sofas, pillows, and even a fireplace make the library warm and comfortable. It’s a convenient shelter for the rainy days, a refuge when things go wrong, and a cozy cocoon when you need to rest. Surrounded by amazing books, you can spend hours of joyous reading there, till you forget all your troubles. Of course, you can also study, if you really want to: you’ll find quiet study rooms in the back of the building. However, I would suggest keeping the library immune from any boring task and heavy workload. This ain’t a prison; it’s a palace.

Let us compare mythologies: Frost has its catacombs, its offices and its long tables. You’re deemed to silence as soon as you enter. Even now that the “cafe” has reopened and you can access the terrace, this likely ain’t exactly your favorite place in the whole wide world. Better go to The Black Sheep, right? On the other hand, you’ve got Jones and its garden, its living room and its press corner, all filled with singing toddlers, role-playing teens, ukulele concerts, painting exhibitions and book-clubs. Needless to say, when I told people, “I’m going to the library”, only seldom did I refer to Frost.

As a foreigner, I was very curious about the cultural activities that took place in the United-States. Libraries in America appeared to me as real centers of civic life. I’ve visited many during my travels, since they can teach you a good deal about the place you’re in (my favorite is Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, which is both magnificent and welcoming). In Brooklyn, I even experienced libraries as potential shelters, after I had the brave and foolish idea to have a quick dip into the ocean... during Thanksgiving break. Thank God the Brooklyn Public Library system is so extended they had an open branch right by Coney Island. Believe me, I’ve never been so happy to find a library by the beach! As I was slowly getting warm again, I came to understand the tremendous importance of libraries as tools for the common good, beyond their already magnificent role as temples of knowledge and relaxing reading rooms. Not only did the heated room save me from the terrible cold of the Atlantic, but it proved a wonderful resource for all kinds of people. I’ve witnessed Russian families trying to pass on their language to their little kids. I’ve seen old folks find a sense of belonging and connection, chatting with librarians. I’ve seen locals spending an instructive hour reading the news. I’ve seen people creating community.

In truth, being a member of the Amherst library system provides you with a real connection with the town. Not only will you be able to attend numerous events, but you can learn about our small town and engage with its citizens. Jones is a collection point for the Amherst Survival Center's Food Drive and it hosts ESL and citizenship programs. If you’re an American citizen, you can even volunteer to help immigrants become a part of this country. The Jones definitely finds itself at the heart of local politics as well. Indeed, one of the main debates that took place in Amherst last Fall revolved around the necessity of expanding and rebuilding the library. It even led to a referendum, which saw the local population hugely support the librarians’ proposal. Finally, the library is a keeper of the town’s memory: as you may have seen if you’ve walked Amity Street, the Jones is the Amherst Historical Society closest neighbor, and it’s no surprise if it keeps both an Emily Dickinson as well as a Robert Frost collection.

Now you may think I’m a little bit too enthusiastic. It’s just a house filled with books, after all. Well, as they say in Toronto, “I’m library people”. Indeed, I must confess, I’m a little biased: I’ve had a library card since I was two years old, my best friend from high-school works as a librarian, and the one and only internship I’ve ever had was at my neighborhood’s branch library. But come on, there’s a reason for such excitement! Don’t you ever feel the awe expressed by poetess Nikki Giovanni, whose verses in “My first memory (of librarians)” recalls:

The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books—another world—just waiting
At my fingertips

Indeed, all kinds of documents are at hand! Cook books and travel guides, picture books and graphic novels, CDs and DVDs (although, to be completely fair, Frost Library actually possesses an amazing movie collection)… all for free! Among the thousands of documents that await you at the library, you may find a gem. Some of these books will help you kill time, while some will prove life-changing. There are books that will make your day, and others that will stay with you for years; books that help you understand how your mind and body work; books that make you believe in the power of friendship after someone has let you down; books that teach you valuable skills.

If this is not enough, if the collection lacks anything you need, well, don’t worry: the Central and Western MAssachusetts Resource Sharing protocol (CWMAS) is simply incredible. Encompassing a hundred libraries in our part of the Commonwealth, it allows you to make loans from all those places, all without leaving your own town (although you may see this as an invitation to discover the region). If the book or CD you’re looking for isn’t available in Amherst, maybe you can get it from Northampton or Adams? Just ask the librarian, and next week you’ll get an email: “hold is available for pickup”. A rainy day in South Hadley? Lost in Belchertown? Stuck in Deerfield? No-brainer: just go to the local library. Your card will work there.

Despite the banners hanging from the street lamps, I didn’t fall in love with Amherst. Of course, we have the mountains and the Pond, the river and the farms, the forest and plenty of trails. Of course there were cafes and donuts, welcoming parishes and a movie theater. Nonetheless, it was Jones library that had the biggest impact on my daily life. Out of the blue, or during my Saturday morning routine, I would find myself relaxing on a sofa in the youth section, or browsing The New Yorker in a comfortable armchair. In his 1989 book, The Great Good Place, American sociologist Ray Oldenburg developed the concept of the “third place”: a place that’s neither home nor work, where you can go and relax, enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and connect with your environment. It can be a cafe or a community center, but libraries are serious candidates too. That’s pretty much how I see the Jones.

This article wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the two little sisters of our main library. If this letter results in a massive flow of visitors, and the Jones becomes crowded, they would offer a safe alternative. Even in the current context, they allow you to distinguish yourself from classmates: not only are you not going to Frost, but you’re bypassing Jones as well! If you’re such a hipster, go to North or South, the two complementary locations of our library system. It’s an amazing walk to South Amherst and the elegant Munson Library. If you feel like going to Puffer’s Pond or the Mill District instead, then you can stop by North Amherst Library; just ride the PVTA.

Even now that I’ve left Amherst College, I still receive the Library’s newsletter each week, along with the Student’s emails. I’m always glad to read them both.

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