Bruce Watson on the Jones Library at 100

This guest post was written by Bruce Watson, the former newspaper columnist and author of the new book, “Hearth and Soul: A History of the Jones Library at 100.” His writing, which includes many articles in Smithsonian magazine and several books, will be recognized at the library’s Samuel Minot Jones Awards tonight.

Through hundreds of columns for the Amherst Bulletin and Daily Hampshire Gazette, I’ve told many stories. About my kids (both doing well, thank you). About politics (not so well, sorry to say). About our colorful culture. But recently I took on a story unlike any I’d covered.

If I told you the story begins with a huge inheritance, you’d be intrigued. If I added that the story is detoured by a devastating fire, you’d perk up. Your curiosity would be aroused by a forgery, break-ins and burglaries, the Depression and World War II, and quotes from Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and others. Throw in cameo appearances by John F. Kennedy and Robert Frost, and social issues ranging from homelessness to immigration, and you would not guess that I’ve been telling the story of a library.

This month, Leveller’s Press in Amherst is publishing “Hearth and Soul: A History of the Jones Library at 100.” “A history of a library?” you ask. So did I. When Jones librarians asked me to write one, I hesitated. I recalled reading what Kurt Vonnegut said in dedicating a college library. “So for all the jubilation this new library will generate in the community at large,” Vonnegut said, “this building might as well be a noodle factory. Noodles are okay. Libraries are okay. They are rather neutral good news.”

A history of a library? What would be the plot? A crime wave of overdue fines? The heartbreak of mold? But then I realized what the Jones has meant to me.

When I moved to Amherst in 1988, I thought someone had turned an old house into a library. But I soon learned the fun of getting lost in that house, wandering through book-cluttered rooms, into nooks and crannies, up and down stairways and back to the real world.

Later, I joined the parents’ brigade, just getting out of the house, thank God, to bring my kids to the Jones children’s room. There they got to know the librarians — Sondra and Theresa and Sully — on a first-name basis. Some noodle factory.

When I became a freelancer, a home with little kids was hardly a quiet writer’s den. So I went, five mornings a week, to the Jones. And over the years, I used the Jones as a meeting place, an Internet portal, a CD rack, a DVD den, and every now and then, a place to get a book.

I agreed to write the history, little suspecting its human story. Of old Samuel Minot Jones who, having made a fortune rebuilding Chicago after its fire, decided his hometown needed a library. Of how the inheritance Jones left to his family went, when his wife and son died young, to the town. Of how the library rose, not based on some cookie-cutter Carnegie model but, as one planner hoped, “a hearth where Mother Amherst welcomes her children.”

Upstairs in the Jones Special Collections, I plowed through scrapbooks kept by the meticulous librarian Charles Green. Every clipping, every event showed the Jones becoming the cultural heart of the town. An auditorium, where modern fiction is now shelved, hosted Sunday talks. Robert Frost read here. Locals listened to news of the Depression, the war, the atomic age. Books came in and went out, like the tide.

Then came the Sixties, when a town library in a conservative town suffered culture shock. Gone were the Victorian lists of new books. “Care and Handling of Cats.” “Great Canadian Preaching.” Suddenly new books included “Portnoy’s Complaint.” “The Population Bomb.” “Soul on Ice.”

But the Sixties revolution was small compared to the changes of the 1990s. You remember, perhaps, when the Jones booted up and, to a sound we’d never heard before — “SKREEESHHHHNEGGITT” — went online.

Today the Jones is more than a collection of books, more even than a hearth. To capture its many uses, I spent a full day within its walls. I wandered room-to-room, hearing children sing, watching patrons surf the Internet, crashing club meetings, seeing librarians send books and DVDs all over the state.

“Hearth and Soul” begins with my day in the library. It moves on through progress, expansion, and a deepening cultural connection to America. The book ends with caution — about declining circulation nationwide — but also with hope from a higher authority.

Jorge Luis Borges was more than a writer. For years, he was the head librarian at Argentina’s National Public Library. Borges’ story “The Library of Babel” imagines a library that doubles as a universe, containing all books ever written. The library is in constant peril — of fire, of closing, of irrelevance. But Borges concludes:

“I am perhaps misled by old age and fear, but I suspect that the human species – the only species — tethers at the brink of extinction yet that the Library – enlightened, solitary, infinite, perfectly unmoving, armed with precious volumes, pointless, incorruptible, and secret — will endure.”

Onward, Jones, into the next 100.

Comments 1

  1. I’m continuing to hope for a place to read writing on town matters in a forum that is wide open, free from the usual Amherst silos. Perhaps Bruce Watson’s essay here is a first step in that direction. The Bulletin seems to have forfeited its role as an impresario of lively, incisive commentary here.

    I suspect that there is a tyranny resulting from the prime imperative currently ruling town government, that addressing climate change must be in the forefront. No one wants to face the blowback by suggesting that there might be other equally important, parallel priorities to be addressed. So, for now, all is quiet.

    Thanks to Bruce Watson for this, because soon we may have to think really hard about just how important a fully functioning, user-friendly Jones Library is for us, amidst the full array of town priorities.

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