Public libraries are losing books and losing visitors – why are we expanding them?

Even before the pandemic, public libraries across the country began to see fewer visitors. In a May 2021 article, Publishers Weekly reported, “In the United States, there was a 31% drop in use of public library buildings over eight years, through 2018.”

During the same period, libraries were reducing the number of books in their collections in favor of online audio, video and especially digital formats. Digital documents require no physical space and can be retrieved by customers from the comfort of their own home.

It is reasonable to expect that libraries can meet these decreasing space needs by avoiding costly building expansion projects. However, across the Commonwealth we have seen that this is often not the case as costly and often divisive library expansion efforts have been launched in Holyoke, Greenfield, Woburn, Gloucester, East Bridgewater and now Amherst, to name a few.

Amherst’s $36.3 million Jones Library renovation and expansion project, which now faces an $11.6 million shortfall due to rising construction costs, is particularly aggressive in its quest for space. According to statistics compiled by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), Amherst has the 39th largest library population in the state, while Jones is currently the 22nd largest library. The fact that about half of Amherst’s residents are university students with their own institutional libraries is not reflected.

The Jones Library construction project will add nearly 15,000 square feet and position the facility as the ninth largest public library in Massachusetts.

Among the measures used to justify the expansion, proponents of the expansion predicted that the Jones Library would have to support a service population of 47,000, 35% of whom are non-residents (and incidentally do not bear the cost of the project with property taxes). A look at MBLC’s historical data on visitors to the Jones Library tells a somewhat different story.

In 2000, the Jones Library had 373,075 visitors for the year. Annual visitor numbers increased and peaked at 400,000 in 2006, then began to steadily decline. In 2018, the number of visitors fell to 276,925 and in 2020, to 227,971, which is only 57% of the visitor activity recorded during the peak in 2006.

Traditionally, the main attraction for library visitors has been the books. In 2015, Jones Library conducted a survey that asked respondents to indicate which library services they used. 87% said they use the general collection, followed by 69% seeking help from a librarian and 68% using interlibrary loan. All other services were used by less than 50% of respondents.

Respondents were also asked to rate the importance of different types of items in the general collection. Some 80% rated the books as “most important.” Of the remaining formats – videos, audiobooks, periodicals and e-books – none was rated “most important” by more than 8% of respondents.

Perhaps Jones Library’s recent practice of reducing the number of books in its collection has contributed to the drop in attendance. The MBLC reports that in 2010 the Jones Library had print holdings of 213,388 items. Thousands of paper books were phased out over the next 12 years until last year the number of printed holdings fell to 166,117.

With visitor numbers steadily declining and a substantial amount of shelf space freed up through book disposal, does Amherst really need to build the ninth largest public library in Massachusetts?

Of course, when it comes to financing a construction project, size matters. Renovating and expanding the Jones Library is part of Amherst’s plan for four building projects, along with a new elementary school, fire station, and the headquarters of the Department of Public Works. In recent months, the construction cost estimate for the four projects has risen from $90 million to $130 million and has yet to be determined.

Amherst policymakers may face the painful choice of abandoning one of the construction projects or asking voters to pass a tax waiver, which could be financially crippling for many.

This begs the question of: a renovation-expansion of the library, a new elementary school, the replacement of the 95-year-old central fire station and the replacement of the 100-year-old Department of Public Works facility. , which are luxuries, and which are necessities?

Jeff Lee is an Amherst resident with an interest in municipal government.

Colin L. Johnson