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War of words over Shutesbury library plan

Tiny town split by projected cost

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Julie Stepanek entertained at the 900-square-foot library.

SHUTESBURY — Perched in this rural hill town east of Amherst, the M.N. Spear Memorial Library has no armchairs, no children’s room, and no running water. Librarians must rearrange the furniture to hold story hour. There are no newspapers in its single crowded room, because there is no place to sit and read them. Patrons standing at the checkout desk step aside to avoid the front door when it opens.

In short, everything about the 900-square-foot library is modest. Everything, that is, except the controversy that surrounds it.

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A push to build a new, 5,800-square-foot library, a source of smoldering tension among the town’s 1,700 residents for years, has fed bitter, acrimonious debate in recent months between supporters who say the need for the $3.5 million project is obvious and opponents who call it too big and costly.

The Spear Memorial Library was built in 1902, when Shutesbury had fewer than 500 people.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

The Spear Memorial Library was built in 1902, when Shutesbury had fewer than 500 people.

The latest townwide vote on the proposal, held in January, did nothing to dissolve dissent. Improbably, with 74 percent of registered voters casting ballots, the outcome was dead even: 522 in favor of a tax increase to help fund construction, and 522 against it.

That set off a recount and a series of new quarrels, including accusations that some who voted were not residents, and a lawsuit against the town clerk and other election officials, which will be heard next month in Franklin Superior Court.

Townspeople weary of the drawn-out saga have been startled by another unlikely development: A two-minute video made by volunteers last month to boost fund-raising for the new library has been viewed more than 30,000 times on YouTube, attracting international attention, $30,000 in donations, and support from celebrities including comedian Paula Poundstone and novelist Margaret Atwood.

That a small-town library has inspired such swirling passions has stopped some observers in their tracks.

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“If you take a step back, it’s like, really? A library?’’ said Bob Mahler, principal of Shutesbury Elementary School.

As the drama intensified, Mahler called leaders of both sides to his office and asked them to tone down their rhetoric. Concerned about escalating conflicts between students, he also placed a moratorium on discussion of the library issue in school, an unprecedented step.

“People are obviously so impassioned, and kids come to school with those passions, and it was playing out in ways that were not healthy,’’ he said. “Kids absorb the fury and the message, so we doused the flames before it created mayhem.’’

Mayhem is not something that comes to mind in these hills, where many residents still live on shaded dirt roads and keep chickens. The Tudor-style library, on the edge of the quiet, pine-fringed town common across from a white clapboard church, is a wireless Internet hub in a town where many are still forced to rely on dial-up; it is also the home of a fishing pole loan program.

Since the library was built in 1902, Shutesbury’s population, then less than 500, has more than tripled. Despite its small size, the library is busy; it stays open 28 hours a week, and in 2010 it had the fourth-highest circulation among the 78 libraries serving the state’s smallest towns, according to its director, Mary Anne Antonellis.

But its cramped quarters also deter people from using it, said residents, some of whom keep driving if they see more than two or three cars in the parking lot.

“If there are four other people there, you’re very aware of them, and you’re aware of the burden you’re adding by being another body there,’’ said Emily Bloch, a mother of two young children and a supporter of the new library project. “It does become a reason not to go, to drive 25 minutes to another library.’’

To Bob Groves, a leading opponent of the library proposal, driving nine miles to Amherst to visit the library there is as routine as driving out of town to buy his groceries. He said Shutesbury has undergone a “somewhat stressful’’ demographic shift with the arrival of highly educated, well-off transplants, many of whom work at nearby UMass Amherst.

His sympathies, he says, lie with longtime residents less able to afford the proposed tax increase, which would have cost the owner of a $284,000 home from $85 to $120 a year.

The proposed library would stand on a nearby parcel, away from the town common.

“I feel like a lot of the ways America behaves, with regard to overspending and consumption, are crystallized in this little town,’’ said the builder, a UMass graduate who specializes in historic restoration. “I’m interested in keeping values of Yankee frugality. . . . I’m not against the library; I’m against a massive facility beyond our ability to pay.’’

An unused 19th-century building on the town common could be restored for library use, Groves said. The installation of a $50 wireless Internet router could turn the current town hall basement into a haven for frustrated laptop users.

Most frustrating, he said, is the disregard that has been shown for opponents’ view. “The people who want the library will not take no for an answer,” he said.

Tired of the ire, proponents have shifted their focus to fund-raising. If they can collect $1 million by June 30 — to cover what the tax increase would have generated — the project can qualify for $2 million in state funding.

The fund drive is a long shot, “but crazier things have happened,’’ Antonellis said. “It’s the best thing for the town to bring down the tax impact, so people who are opposed will feel better about it.’’ Total gifts and pledges have surpassed $200,000, she said.

Optimism has surged with the success of the video, which makes no reference to the controversy.

In it, adults and children hold up handmade signs listing reasons why they need a new library, while library storyteller Julie Stepanek provides the soundtrack, playing her ukulele and singing “Everybody Let’s Jump,’’ an upbeat tune she wrote for story hour.

Filmed in three hours by Lindsay Van Dyke, a friend and colleague of Bloch’s who volunteered her time, it has drawn donations from as far away as Singapore. “[M]ade me cry ACTUAL HUMAN TEARS OF HAPPINESS,’’ tweeted comedian John Hodgman of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.’’

“What it says to me, that people are moved to give money to a town they’ve never heard of and a library they’ll never use, is that people personally value their experiences in libraries,’’ said Bloch. “They see it as a social good that won’t just be for our town.’’

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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