New Library is the Fiscally Responsible Choice

The recent review of our library by the Massachusetts Office of Disability noted in a letter from Library Trustee Chair Doris Cowdrey to Mayor Martin and the Council places Greenfield in the position of taking one of two actions.

Building the new library is no longer a tax issue. Greenfield will spend approximately the same amount of money to make the present library accessible and safe for all (people in wheelchairs, strollers, baby carriages, walkers) as it would spend for a new library.

There are only two choices:

  • Build a new library. Funding comes from a $9.4M library grant, $2M to be raised by the Library Foundation, and approximately $8M from the City. Greenfield gets a low-maintenance, energy-efficient library that provides more space than the current library and is designed to provide our community with a 21st century library.
  • Renovate the old library. All funding comes from the City. Renovation costs are estimated at $8.6M. This doesn't include the cost for renting a temporary space and moving all library contents twice– out and back in. The City will get a more accessible building, but with less usable space and high future maintenance costs.

The best fiscal choice for Greenfield is to build a new library.

Accessibility and the Greenfield Public Library

What is it like to use the current library in a wheelchair?

Building Advisory Board

Greenfield Public Library

Greenfield, MA 01301

As a child, my family moved often. One of the first things we did in a new community was to go to the Library. It is something I have always done. In 2012, as a newly disabled person, I moved to Greenfield and faced the challenge of figuring out how to live in this new community. Of course, one of the first things I did was go to the Greenfield Public Library. And one of the first lessons I had was how very difficult it was going to be, if I wanted to be included in public spaces, like the Library.

Over the past four years, I have come to think of the Library as having two very different dimensions.  I think very highly of all of the Library staff. I have always been treated with respect, and on the occasion that I have needed help, the staff has always been happy to accommodate me. 

When I think about the Library as a physical building, my experience is very different.  The only wheelchair accessible entrance is in the back of the building, through an area shared with delivery trucks. The access ramp has a large crack in it, large enough to sometimes catch my wheels. On occasion, I get stuck. Early on, I drew attention to this problem and a repair was requested. The repair was to cover the hole with a berm of asphalt – which made using the ramp even harder. Eventually, the asphalt wore away and I learned to settle with the cracked ramp. Also, because the back entrance to the Library is at the bottom of an incline, in the winter it is often covered with a film of ice from run-off down the slope – another challenge to simply getting into the building.

The back entrance leads to an area that is obviously a basement. There is no clear signage indicating where the elevator is, or what the accessible route may be to get to the main part of the Library. A patron who cannot climb stairs needs to go down a hallway, and then up a ramp to a level area that has the elevator to the right and book storage to the left. It is not possible to see the elevator from the base of the ramp. 

The entrances to the adult bathrooms are located halfway up the ramp, making it impossible for someone using a wheelchair to get into and out of the bathrooms independently.  Because this difficulty, I think of the Library as having no restroom facilities, and try to plan accordingly. 

The elevator from the basement to the Main Floor is small. It could accommodate me and one other adult, but it is a tight squeeze, and makes for an awkward kind of dance as an able-bodied person tries to hold the door open, which also leads them to block me from being able to enter or exit the elevator. If he or she got in the elevator before I do, there isn’t enough room for me to turn around, which makes exiting the elevator awkward.

On the Main Floor, most of the general areas are reasonably open, to allow room for the range of patrons using the Library. However, the part of the Children’s Section devoted to picture books is not wheelchair accessible, and the Adult Stacks are very problematic. Public seating areas often block the path of travel for a wheelchair user, and the bank of computers is very awkward to use. When several patrons are already using some of the computers, they/their chairs usually block access to empty terminals. My solution is to accept that the public terminals are not for my use.

In the Adult Stacks, the width of the aisle between one set of shelves and the other is not wide enough to be able to turn around. The space at the end of the aisle is not sufficiently wide to be able to move around the end of the stacks, to go up the next aisle. When I use the stacks I have to back-up to get out of one aisle in order to go down another. 

Depending how well I manage that maneuver and depending on whether any books are sticking out past the edge of the shelves, I have occasionally knocked books off of a lower shelf, which then blocks me from being able to back the rest of the way out of the aisle. Because of the height of the shelves, I can’t browse books that are on the upper shelves. At this point, I have mostly stopped using the stacks and request that items be held for me at the desk. While that does solve the problem, I do sometimes miss the experience of just being able to browse the shelves for some book on a subject or by an author that is new to me.

There are times when I do not go to the Library because I am not up to the physical challenges or the lack of dignity that comes with being in a public space that was never intended to be inclusive. Creating a more inclusive Library in a historic building has involve Gerry-rigging in ways that meet the letter of the law, but often fail to meet the spirit. Often, I choose not to go because I don’t want to be in a space where I feel diminished. I don’t want to create the impression in other people’s minds that emphasizes my disability rather than my abilities.

There are many ways I do not use the Library because the challenge is too great. A simple example of this is that I can never return books after hours, because the book drop is located at the top of the stairs at the main entrance. When I am unable to get to the Library during open hours, before a book is due, I have to accept that I will only be able to return books late and pay a fine. 

While I appreciate the many ways I am able to contribute to the Library, there are also times when I am tired of the challenges and wonder whether I might be better served in a different community. The legacy of 19th century architecture still creates a space where my presence is challenged, in ways I am not always prepared to accept. It reminds me that my membership in the public is not something I should take for granted.


Joannah Whitney