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   Date: 12/8/09 Bookmark and Share

Neilson Centennial Exhibition Reflects Heart of Library

By an anonymous Smithie

From a library carrel

I heard a girl say

Why didn’t (pause)

I go to (pause) Missouri

She repeated again in

a desolate way

Why didn’t I go… to


Where studies and

learning are not so


And assignments are

done with an arm

round your waist

And it’s not just on

week-ends that

girls get embraced

Why didn’t I go to



From down in Missouri

a sorrowful wail

Why did we transfer

to Missouri

From back in the beer

Hall, an echoing call

Why did we… transfer

to… Missouri

We’re tired of wearing

out fashionable dress

And existing on sleep

of four hours or less

And trials of choosing

what date would

be best—

Oh “Cuddles” can

Have her Missouri


Then the library shook

With a heart rending


Why didn’t --

And from its dark

walls raise this

desperate cry

Why didn’t–

Oh we’re weary of

solving equations for x

And we’re tired of

developing our


Oh to try that activity

Webster calls “sex”

Why didn’t I go to


By Leslie Fields ’95, records services archivist, curator of the Neilson centennial exhibition

Neilson Library is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. One of the centennial events is an exhibition that I curated documenting the history of the library through architectural drawings, photographs, letters, and even a melted lamp (more about that later!). “The Heart of Our Place of Learning” is on view through March in the Book Arts Gallery, Neilson Library third floor.

Every time you enter the library and search the stacks—every time you sit in the Browsing Room for a lecture or special event, and every time you study at a carrel or in a faculty office, you are traveling through a physical space that has evolved over the past 100 years.

As the centennial exhibition illustrates, many issues faced by library personnel in 1909 are still pertinent today. For example, one longstanding issue has been how to best create spaces for studying. In 1909, the answer was to fill rooms with oversized tables. By the time of the library’s first addition in 1937, individual carrels were considered cutting-edge, and were proudly promoted. In the early 1960s, when the next addition was built, it was important to cluster carrels near windows and close to the central stacks. Today, students have a variety of choices: individual carrels, group study spaces, and the ability to move furniture to meet their needs.

Two of my favorite items in the exhibition are a poem and a melted piece of lamp.

The poem (see sidebar text) was written by an anonymous Smith student and imagines students’ thoughts while working in library carrels. We don’t know the exact date it was written, but it must have been after those individual carrels that President Neilson advocated for were put into place in the library in 1937. (Little did Neilson imagine the kind of independent thinking students would use those carrels for!)

The second item is the melted lamp, a surviving artifact from the 1975 fire in the former Seelye Reference Room (now the Mair Room), the only substantial fire in Neilson Library’s history. On October 21, 1975, a fire that began just before 4 a.m. caused $275,000 worth of damage to the collection and the building. At the time, the Seelye Reference Room had neither a smoke nor heat detector system. The floor, ceiling and walls were scorched; tables, desks, bookshelves, and microfilm readers destroyed. Approximately 1,000 of the 12,000 books in the room were consumed by fire. Others were damaged by heat and smoke. The desk lamp shown in the exhibition was melted by 1,000-degree heat.

The Library was closed that day to allow staff to organize the clean-up and restoration operations. Amazingly the building was re-opened the following day, October 22.

Other exhibition items include an original architectural drawing of the library’s façade, scripture readings for services held in the Library’s Little Chapel (yes, a chapel in the library), a “Save Alumnae Gym” pin, and photographs of President Neilson with a twinkle in his eye.

I hope visitors to this exhibition will come away with a better understanding of the building’s physical evolution and what it tells us about the history of the college, as well as an appreciation for the many people who worked to make the library a place where students, faculty and others can do their best work.

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