A research library is a hub that generates and distributes intellectual currents, associate dean of the faculty Hélène Visentin says.
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‘An Extraordinary Time to Be a Scholar at Smith’
A Place for Discovery
MANY OF US carry in our heads a picture of a “library” as a stuffy, quiet place redolent of old paper and floor wax. Like the empty church in Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” the library was “a serious house on serious earth,” its seriousness producing a hushed atmosphere of often overbearing scholarly silence. You went to the library to disinter, for brief periods, past wisdom entombed according to Dewey shelf numbers, to shrug under the weight of all that knowledge, only to leave bowed by what you had no time to read.
There is enough new in the new Neilson to forever retire that outdated, clichéd portrait of a library. This exciting space is built precisely for the cutting-edge, collaborative approach to both the production and presentation of new knowledge that students today have come to expect. Are there linear feet (yards? miles?) of books and documents on shelves? Of course. Will footnoted academic articles or papers remain an important avenue of communication? Yes. But contemporary tools—including data visualization software, recording studios, and multimedia presentation spaces—are opening up new avenues for scholars to bring audiences into the dynamism and excitement of research in innovative ways. Interested in representations of climate change and their impacts on a particular region? Government agency reports, literary narratives, the arguments of ecologists and economists, and shifting maps and geographical data projected on high-tech screens for individual or collective analysis—all available within the walls of Neilson—may now inform a project’s conclusions.
This is an extraordinary time to be a scholar—whether an undergraduate or a tenured professor—at Smith. The new Neilson Library will spark our imaginations, inspire us to pursue answers to our questions, challenge us to reconsider our assumptions, and allow us to seek new perspectives. Our campus—indeed, our world—will reap the rewards of our discoveries for generations to come.
Michael Thurston is provost and dean of the faculty, as well as the Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature.
This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.