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The New Neilson Library

The Library of the Future, Currently Underway

The intellectual heart of the campus, the Neilson Library advances and celebrates learning, benefitting all who come to Smith. In October 2016 Maya Lin unveiled designs for a New Neilson Library, incorporating the original 1909 structure and reimagining the complex as an intellectual commons. The project will begin in summer 2017 and will be completed for the fall semester of 2020.

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 co-located.

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

The renovation and reimagining of Neilson Library, 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.

Will the Smith employ union workers to build the Neilson Library?

Smith College is committed to fair labor practices and has a long history of successful construction projects on campus utilizing a mix of union and non-union contractors. Learn more: 

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.

See Library Services Now for 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.