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New Neilson May 6, 2021

Smith College’s New Neilson Library

An Intellectual Commons at the Heart of the Campus

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Photographs by Nic Lehoux

Nine years ago, when Smith College set out to re-imagine Neilson Library, the college envisioned, in the words of President Kathleen McCartney, a “modern library that is not only functional but forward-looking—a library that will showcase our collections and enrich our community in ways we can only begin to imagine.”

Now, as the redesigned library opens to members of the on-campus community, the new Neilson offers, McCartney says, “a reenvisioning of a building that has been at the heart not just of our campus but also of the educational experiences of generations of students, staff and faculty.

“This state-of-the-art library houses the new and the old: our archives and special collections, digital design studios, the Jill Ker Conway Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and so much more,“ McCartney said. “It is a place of learning, connection, discovery and beauty—a place that invites us to explore the world in all its wonder.”

Architectural designer Maya Lin’s re-imagined Neilson Library is an innovative, contemporary structure that presents a compelling vision for the modern library while respecting the building’s historic significance.

With an emphasis on natural light, sustainable environmental design principles, and flexible interior space that can be used for a variety of purposes, Lin’s design re-imagines the library as a space for collaboration and reflection. It also reconnects the college’s science quadrangle with the campus’ historic center, restoring integrity to Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1893 campus plan.

Maya Lin Studio developed the design in partnership with colleague William Bialosky and the firm of Shepley Bulfinch. Landscape architecture is by Lin with landscape designer Edwina von Gal (in collaboration with Ryan Associates).

Begun in 2018, the five-story, 153,865 gross-square-foot project is Lin’s first college library and one of the most significant capital projects in Smith College’s history.

In an artist’s statement, Lin says she envisioned the new Neilson as “a dialogue between old and new.”

“By preserving the original, historic Neilson foundations and exterior, the new library retains the memory of the original structure. But completely rethinking and reconstructing the interior speaks to the needs of students today—with more room for collaborating and socializing. And of course the book is still central to the space,” Lin says. “When you’re in Neilson, you’ll know that you are in a house of books.”

The new Neilson retains the original 1909 structure, including the venerable Neilson Browsing Room, but replaces the 1962 and 1982 additions with “jewel box” wings—constructed of masonry, wood and glass—that offer open, inviting, light-filled spaces designed to support research, teaching and learning in a variety of styles. Featuring gracious entryways on each side of the building, the new library draws people in from every direction.

Inside, books are abundant and visible. Visitors will also notice that all five floors are connected by an eye-catching central “oculus,” an open core designed to capture and disseminate ethereal light throughout the space.

Two curved, “jewel box” wings (recently named for Smith presidents emeritae Ruth Simmons and Mary Maples Dunn) create comfortable space for reading (in the South wing) and socializing (in the North Wing). These striking, curved additions to the building’s original 1909 core replace outmoded wings that divided the heart of Smith’s campus, uniting Smith’s historic quadrangle with its science quadrangle. “The two curved, organically shaped jewel boxes are a contrast to the original, orthogonal design, and speak to my aesthetic, which introduces a more hand drawn and organic shape,” says Lin.

The primary purpose of Smith’s library redesign was not to expand space for existing collections, which are among the strongest of any liberal arts college, but to think creatively and intentionally about what a forward-looking library should be, how it should function, and what scholarly and social goals it might serve.

In particular, Smith sought to develop a library that reflects and conveys the nature of a Smith education, which is global in scope and based on learning across disciplines.

The project cost for the new Neilson Library was $120 million, of which $42.8 million has been funded through philanthropy.

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Reflecting the purpose of a contemporary library

The new Neilson places a premium on flexible space that blends traditional collections with new technologies and an intentional focus on collaborative learning.

A “learning hub” for the campus—offering classrooms, quiet study and reading rooms, as well as expanded space for collaboration, socializing and high-tech work—the new Neilson features a Digital Media Hub with multimedia equipment and studio space for recording digital content; GIS and gaming labs; and a large, multifunctional Learning Commons where students can work with research librarians, instructional technologists and writing and quantitative learning specialists.

The Jill Ker Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, named for Smith’s first woman president, is housed in a prominent place within the central core of the library, just to the left of the entrance from Seelye Lawn. Across from the Conway Center, the Neilson Browsing Room—a longstanding and beloved home for readings, lectures and other events—has been restored and updated.

On the top floor, the Skyline Reading Room provides large, open space for meetings, classes, events or individual study. A rooftop patio offers expansive views of the Holyoke Range.

Provost and dean of the faculty Michael Thurston says, “What’s especially exciting to me is the way the shape and flow of spaces emphasize collaborative inquiry. It really emblematizes and enacts the ancient and vital identity of a library as the place where a community of scholars engages both the preserved thought of the past and the ongoing conversation that looks to renew and enrich our understanding.”

Leading in sustainability

The new Neilson is intentionally designed as one of the greenest, most energy-efficient libraries in the U.S., using 50 percent less energy than a typical library and contributing significantly to the college’s goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030. Maximizing the use of natural light through the central, light-catching “oculus” and expansive windows (laced with an ultraviolet webbing pattern that prevents bird collisions), Smith’s new Neilson Library unites the indoors and outdoors with an exterior courtyard and an outdoor amphitheater that can be used for performances and classroom instruction. Throughout, the structure emphasizes the use of locally sourced materials, including limestone.

Lin said, “My approach was to create a new, state-of-the-art, sustainable building that creates a dialogue with the historic Neilson and opens up and restores the Olmsted master plan, expanding the possibilities of the library while reducing the overall footprint of the building and restoring the heart of the campus.”

History of the project

Smith’s library redesign began in 2010, when the college engaged Shepley Bulfinch to partner on a master plan for all of the college’s libraries. Soon after, the college worked with Shepley Bulfinch on several studies to assess what could feasibly be accomplished with current library space. In 2014, the trustees approved the concept of a redesign of Neilson and the hiring of an architect.

Maya Lin and Shepley Bulfinch were hired in April 2015. They approached the Smith library redesign as a creative exploration and an active partnership with members of the Smith community. During the process, nearly 1,900 students, faculty, staff, alums and members of the Northampton community participated in more than 30 “engagement sessions” designed to help re-imagine Neilson for the 21st century.

The library’s interior design reflects priorities identified during those sessions, including:

  • a strong desire for natural light
  • flexible space that can easily be rearranged to suit a variety of teaching, learning and research purposes
  • a cafe where students can be “alone together,” studying in solitude while surrounded by their peers
  • study spaces, where students and faculty can work in solitude
  • a variety of spaces that support quiet reflection as well as task-oriented scholarship
  • integrated space for Smith’s outstanding special collections—one of the world’s largest and best collections of materials related to women’s history.

Named for Smith’s third president, William Allan Neilson, Neilson Library serves as the sciences, social sciences and humanities library and includes the library administration offices. Neilson also is home to Smith’s extraordinary Special Collections—including the Smith College Archives, the Mortimer Rare Book Room, and the Sophia Smith Collection—one of the world’s largest and most important archives of women’s history.

About the Location

Built in 1909 and expanded in 1962 and in 1982, Neilson Library holds pride of place on the Smith College campus, sitting between the science quad and the arts and humanities quad.

Working within Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1939 plan for the Smith campus, Lin’s design for the new Neilson eliminates the architectural barrier created by the previous building, unifying the campus and opening the view—and the paths for travel—from the Smith College Museum of Art to the science quad, and from Green Street to Chapin Lawn.

The new Neilson highlights significant improvements to the surrounding landscape, recalling Olmsted’s original campus plan, which Lin describes as “not formal, but very organic. Our goal,” Lin says, “was to restore the heart of the Smith Campus—creating a landscape that welcomes you to sit, read and gather outside as well as bringing back the flow around the building.”

The revised landscaping effectively reveals and incorporates the 16-foot elevation change between Neilson’s east and west sides, and will also preserve several heritage trees that surround the original 1909 structure.

About Maya Lin

Known for her large-scale environmental installations, memorials and architectural works, Maya Lin is an American artist, architectural designer and environmentalist whose many mould-breaking projects defy explicit categories. Always trying to find a balance between opposing forces, she says, “My work originates from a simple desire to make people aware of their surroundings.”

Nature and the environment have long been central concerns for Lin, who attended Yale University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1981 and a Master of Architecture degree in 1986. Lin was thrust into the spotlight when, as a senior at Yale, she submitted the winning design in a national competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be built in Washington, D.C. She has gone on to a remarkable career in both art and architecture, while still being committed to memory works that focus on some of the critical historical issues of our time.

Lin’s art explores how we experience and relate to landscape, setting up a systematic ordering of the land that is tied to history, memory, time and language. Her interest in landscape has led to works influenced by topographies and geographic phenomena.

Her architectural projects are largely undertaken at the request of non-profit institutions and include the newly renovated Neilson Library (2021) at Smith College, the Museum for Chinese in America (2009) in New York City, the Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel (2004), the Langston Hughes Library (1999) in Clinton, Tennessee, and the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research: Cambridge Campus (2015).

Her designs create a close dialogue between the landscape and built environment, and she is committed to advocating sustainable design solutions in all her works.

In 2009, Maya Lin started work on her last memorial, “What is Missing?”, an ongoing, multi-sited multimedia installation that raises awareness about habitat loss and biodiversity and emphasizes how protecting and restoring habitats can help protect species and significantly reduce climate change emissions.

Lin, who operates Maya Lin Studio in New York, has received many honors, among them the National Medal of Arts (2009) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2016), both conferred by President Barack Obama, and the Gish Prize (2014). The film “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” won the 1994 Oscar for Best Documentary.

About Julia Chang Lin, Class of 1951

The new Neilson’s sunken courtyard is named for Maya Lin’s mother, Julia Chang Lin, who led an extraordinary life.

Born in Shanghai in 1928, she grew up in a small coastal town in South China, attended private schools, and in 1947 enrolled at St. John’s University in Shanghai.

In May 1949, on the same day that the Communists marched into Shanghai, Lin received a telegram from Smith, notifying her that she’d been accepted as a transfer student and awarding her a $1,000 scholarship. The family housekeeper, Liu Ma, sewed the telegram and two $10 bills into the collars of Lin’s Chinese dress. As the Nationalist government bombed the coast, Lin was smuggled to the United States on a fishing boat with her best friend. Detained for weeks on an island held by the Nationalists, Lin arrived at Smith one month after the semester had started, in October 1949.

After graduating from Smith and earning graduate degrees from the University of Washington, Julia Chang Lin taught for nearly 30 years in the English Department at Ohio University, where she also helped establish the university’s Chinese language courses. The author of four books, she was influential in bringing generations of Chinese women poets to a western audience. In 1999, Lin was one of 29 “remarkable women” honored by Smith for “achievements representing the accomplishments of generations of Smith alumnae.”

Julia Chang Lin died of cancer in New York in 2013, at age 85. At the time of her death, she was writing an autobiography. The sunken courtyard at the center of the new Neilson has been named for Julia Chang Lin.

About Smith: Founded in 1871, Smith College opened in 1875 with 14 students. Today, it is one of the largest women’s liberal arts colleges in the United States, educating women of promise for lives of distinction and purpose. Smith enrolls 2,600 students from nearly every state and more than 50 other countries to cultivate leaders able to address the complex, urgent problems of today. As a community of scholars, entrepreneurs, scientists, activists and humanitarians, Smith is changing the world. More information at smith.edu.