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The New Neilson

Rendering of Neilson Library from Burton Lawn

For more than a century, Neilson Library has been a crossroads of Smith College’s intellectual community, where scholars and students spend quiet hours studying and exploring the archives and collections in their quest for knowledge. Faculty and staff also meet there to share research, craft new assignments and map the future of the curriculum.

Holding steady to its mission of advancing teaching, learning and discovery for students and faculty, the library has grown and responded to the needs of the times: expanding its collections, developing an array of digital services, and fostering a core of librarians who are essential partners in teaching and learning. But the facilities of the current building are reaching their limits.

Smith’s Next Frontier

Smith has always been at the forefront of pedagogy, most recently in introducing an engineering program that is the first of its kind at a liberal arts college for women and in establishing academic concentrations that combine classroom work with real-world experiences.

Rendering of Neilson Library from Seelye Lawn

The college’s next frontier will be to create what President Kathleen McCartney has called a “library for the 21st century.” Around the world, colleges and universities are discussing the future of academic libraries. Studies show that libraries remain critical curated spaces and are no longer simply “boxes of books,” according to Sarah Thomas ’70, vice president for the Harvard Library. To appeal to a new generation of students, college libraries must be flexible and responsive, according to Thomas, providing spaces that can be transformed at a moment’s notice to accommodate different needs. They must provide immediate and seamless access to information through state-of-the-art digital technology, and they must offer patrons open social spaces for discussion and studying in groups.

Frequently Asked Questions

When did the project start and how long will it take?

The project is currently in the design phase. Engagement with faculty and students took place during fall 2015; design work began in winter 2016. Construction is expected to begin in late 2017 or early 2018 and is expected to take more than two years. The library staff is maintaining a timeline of the project’s phases.

What part of the current Neilson Library building will be preserved?

The current Neilson Library was built in phases beginning in 1909. The original 1909 “core” of the building will be retained for its historic significance, yet remodeled and brought up to date with current infrastructure and technology.

Will the library deaccession books as it expands its collaborative and other spaces in the new building?

There are no plans to deaccession books. However, the construction of the new Five College Library Annex provides an opportunity for lesser-used collections to be shelved offsite with a quick retrieval system, opening up valuable space in the new library and providing a better organized, easily browsable stack area for the more heavily used collections that remain on campus.

What will happen with the College Archives in Alumnae Gymnasium?

Alumnae Gymasium will be included in the program planning for the new Neilson complex. Special collections—the College Archives, the Sophia Smith Collection and the Mortimer Rare Book Room—will be given pride of place, acknowledging the centrality of these unique and rare materials to the past, present and future of Smith and their important uses in Smith’s curriculum. The collections and services will be collocated.

How much will the project cost and how will Smith pay for it?

The renovation and reimagining of Neilson Library will be the largest capital project in Smith’s history. The entire project, which includes new construction and renovation of Neilson, the renovation of Alumnae Gym, site preparation and landscaping, may require an investment of more than $100 million, depending on programming. (In comparison, Ford Hall, opened in 2010, was built for about $70 million.) Funding will come from three sources: borrowing, capital project funds and philanthropy. Some Smith donors are particularly interested in helping to fund the library.

How will students use the library while the new building is being constructed?

Maintaining continuity of service for library patrons is a top priority. Branch libraries will play an enhanced role in the delivery of services. Beginning in June 2017, Young Library will become the central library services point on campus. Services at Young will include:

  • Circulation and reserves;
  • Instruction and research assistance;
  • Access to the Special Collections;
  • Reading and computing areas.

The Hillyer Art Library and Josten Performing Arts Library will continue to provide study spaces and services. The college is also exploring the possibilities for “adaptive re-use” of spaces around campus—spaces that might, with creative enhancement, better serve multiple student uses. Upgrades and access to these spaces is being developed, and improvements will be completed by the start of school in the fall of 2017.

The library staff maintains a page with the latest information on the transition as well as a timeline.

Where will Smith house its books and other collections during the renovation?

  • Most of the Neilson and Young print collections will be housed in the new Five College Library Annex facility being built in Hatfield, Mass.
  • Materials will be paged from this new facility as they are now from the other Five College libraries and the Five College Library Repository Collection.
  • There will be daily deliveries of materials and books.
  • Special Collections (Sophia Smith Collection, College Archives, and Mortimer Rare Book Collection) will remain on campus and be housed in Young Library.

What will the new library look like?

Maya Lin presented her designs for the reimagined Neilson Library at a campus event on Friday, October 14. She has spoken of her desire to have the redesigned structure fit into the campus in a welcoming, natural way; she describes her approach as “contextual,” or responsive to the buildings nearby. Lin describes her aesthetic as using lots of natural light, stone, wood, glass and steel. The natural environment has always been an important source of inspiration for Lin, and the Neilson redesign will be in keeping with the ideas of Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the nation’s greatest landscape architects, whose 1893 master plan for Smith placed the library at the heart of the campus.

How do you “futureproof” a library? How do you think 50 years ahead?

An important goal in the design and construction of a new Neilson is to create a resilient building with spaces that are flexible and adaptable to changing needs. While we can’t predict what those needs may be, we can design spaces that can respond to technological changes and be reprogrammed for new uses without great cost.

Will the building include quiet study spaces?

Yes! One of the main goals of the renovation is to create more welcoming, quiet study spaces, as well as spaces for other activities. Maya Lin has spoken a lot about contemplative spaces for work, and that approach is evident in her buildings.

Will there be faculty offices in the new library?

Recommendations for faculty offices as well as other uses of space in the new building are included in the library program planning document, which was developed in fall 2015 by the Library Program Committee, with assistance from the architects, and submitted to the board of trustees in early 2016.

What types of sustainable practices will be used in the new building?

Creating a sustainable building has been a critical objective in the design and architectural planning process. Shepley Bulfinch will be engaging a sustainability consultant firm to assist in assuring that all phases of construction and occupancy reflect the college’s commitment to sustainability. The director of campus planning and sustainability is a member of the program committee as well as the Project Coordinating Team.

What types of accessible services will be offered in the new building?

The design and architect team is working with the college’s Office of Disability Services throughout the project to ensure that students, faculty, staff and visitors with disabilities will have equal access to and be able to participate fully in the new library complex and its programs, services and technology.

Why were Maya Lin and Shepley Bulfinch chosen for this project?

The Lin/Shepley Bulfinch team was chosen for the project after an international search. Maya Lin’s celebrated work in the combined fields of architecture, art and landscape, coupled with Shepley Bulfinch’s extensive experience in creating 21st-century academic libraries, will create a new library that is not only functional but forward looking.

Does Smith have design guidelines that dictate the architectural style of its buildings?

No, Smith does not have such guidelines. As a result, the campus features a vibrant array of buildings representing a range of architectural styles.


Library Program Committee

Charge: To identify and prioritize such building elements as user spaces, library services, physical collections, and academic support services and centers, and make recommendations to the president and board, who will make final decisions.

  • Katherine Rowe, Provost and Dean of Faculty; chair
  • Nancy Bradbury, Professor of English Language and Literature; Libraries Feasibility Committee
  • Betsy Carpenter, Development and Campaign Director
  • Patrick Coby, Professor of Government
  • Charlie Conant, Senior Project Manager, Facilities Management; liaison to architect
  • Deborah Duncan ’77, Trustee
  • Nalini Easwar, Professor of Physics
  • John Eue, Associate Vice President for Public Affairs
  • Sarah Evans ’18
  • Elizabeth Eveillard, Chair, Board of Trustees, ex officio
  • Madeleine Fackler ’80, Trustee
  • Barbara Kellum, Professor of Art
  • Kimberly Kono, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures
  • Tom Laughner, Director of Educational Technology Services
  • Donna Lisker, Dean of the College and Vice President for Campus Life
  • Christopher Loring, Director of Libraries
  • Steve Moga, Assistant Professor of Landscape Studies
  • Roger Mosier, Associate Vice President for Facilities Management
  • Beth Myers, Director of Special Collections
  • Cornelia Pearsall, Professor of English Language and Literature
  • Judith Pelham ’67, Trustee
  • Barbara Polowy, Head of Hillyer Art Library; staffing the committee
  • Danielle Ramdath, Associate Dean of the Faculty
  • Dano Weisbord, Director of Campus Sustainability and Space Planning
  • Maria Wood AC

Library Design Committee

Charge: The Library Design Committee will work with the team of Maya Lin Studio + Shepley Bulfinch to ensure that the college’s design and aesthetic ambitions for the new Neilson Library are realized in the context of its program requirements as well as the campus as a whole. 

The committee will guide input from the Smith community to the design process and provide formal feedback to the Maya Lin + Shepley Bulfinch team at milestones throughout the design process. In addition, the committee will be responsible for maintaining alignment between the program, design and budget. 

  • Kathleen McCartney, President; chair
  • Deborah Berger ’86, Trustee
  • Nancy Bradbury, Professor of English Language and Literature
  • Elizabeth Mugar Eveillard ’69, Chair, Board of Trustees, ex officio
  • Michael Howard, Vice President for Finance and Administration
  • Barbara Kellum, Professor of Art
  • Christopher Loring, Director of Libraries
  • Steve Moga, Assistant Professor of Landscape Studies
  • Roger Mosier, Associate Vice President for Facilities Management
  • Susan Novick ’81, Trustee
  • Judith Pelham ’67, Trustee
  • Beth Raffeld, Vice President for Development
  • Katherine Rowe, Provost and Dean of the Faculty

Architect Selection Committee

Charge: To recommend a slate of potential architects to the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees.

  • Kathleen McCartney, President; Chair
  • Sanford Belden, Trustee
  • Nancy Bradbury, Professor of English Language and Literature; Libraries Feasibility Committee
  • Charles Conant, Senior Project Manager, Facilities Management
  • John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art
  • Elizabeth Mugar Eveillard ’69, Chair, Board of Trustees, ex officio
  • Patricia DiBartolo, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Science Center
  • Andrew Guswa, Engineering
  • Michael Howard, Vice President for Finance and Administration
  • Christopher Loring, Director of Libraries
  • Roger Mosier, Associate Vice President for Facilities Management
  • Lucy Mule, Associate Professor of Education and Child Study
  • Beth Myers, Director of Special Collections
  • Lois Perelson-Gross ’83, Trustee
  • Beth Raffeld, Vice President for Development
  • Katherine Rowe, Provost and Dean of Faculty
  • Frazer Ward, Associate Professor of Art History and Dean of the Junior Class
  • Tom Bernard, Director of Special Projects, staff support