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News & Events for the Smith College Community
New Neilson March 9, 2015

What Library Are You Dreaming? Provost Talks About the Future of Neilson

Three students work together in Neilson Library

In the coming months, the college community will be engaged in an important new phase of planning for the future of Neilson Library.

Building on efforts begun in 2010, faculty, students, alumnae and staff will take up the task of what Provost Katherine Rowe calls “reimagining” the 106-year-old library.

Rowe is chairing the Library Program Committee, which will be carefully studying the role that Neilson plays in teaching, learning and research at Smith—and planning ways the library can support those activities in the future. The committee is comprised of students, faculty, administrators and trustees.

The library project will be the college’s largest capital project of the decade and the first renovation of Neilson since 1982. After an architect is selected, the program committee will begin working with the firm to produce a comprehensive plan for refurbishing Neilson. Construction is not expected to begin until 2017.

Library Director Christopher Loring noted that previous renovations at Neilson have focused on accommodating Smith’s collections, which are among the strongest of any liberal arts college. The existing building can no longer contain the expected growth of those collections, Loring said, nor respond to the new types of learning, research and scholarship in which Smith students and faculty are increasingly engaged.

Nancy Bradbury, professor of English language and literature and a member of the program committee, called plans to refurbish the library “a major commitment” to student and faculty research at Smith.

“The library we have doesn’t do justice to our outstanding collections,” she added. “One of the aspirations for a renovated library is to set off those stellar collections and create a building that is more welcoming to 21st-century undergraduates.”

Sarah Evans ’18, one of two students on the program committee, said she views the planning process as “an opportunity to really think deeply about what a library is and what it means to Smith.”

“Students shouldn’t be thinking that this is all about getting rid of Neilson,” Evans added. “We want to keep the things we love about the library, but in a way that moves us forward. Everyone should be excited about this process.”

While discussions about renovating Neilson have been underway for several years, Rowe emphasized that the college is just beginning a specific planning process for what a revamped library will look like and what it will house.

Here’s what else Rowe had to say in a recent interview about the library initiative.

Why is the college planning to renovate Neilson Library—and why now?
“If you spend any time inside Neilson, it’s clear that it’s an old building. It’s also clear that while the library houses many of the components we need to pursue intellectual life at Smith—books and other materials, cutting-edge digital resources and, most of all, an incredible staff of librarians—the way the building is configured doesn’t meet the needs of the people who use it. It’s time for us to look ahead, not only at the needs we have now, but to a building that will still meet our needs 30 years from now. Neilson is a space that’s had a long and very productive life on campus. But it also exists in a way that divides the campus like a massive wall. It’s time for the library to be reimagined.”

What is the planning process for the library project and who will lead that process?
“The process began in 2010 with a master plan for all the libraries and was followed by several early studies by faculty and staff about what we can feasibly do with our current library space. In 2014, the trustees approved the concept of a renovation of Neilson and gave the go-ahead to hire an architect. We are now in the late stages of choosing an architect partner for the project. Once we have the architects on board, they will take us through a robust set of planning exercises that will involve all parts of the community that use the library. That process will include forums, meetings, playful design experiments and possibly even some surveys. There are two groups leading the library initiative: the Library Architect Selection Committee, which is chaired by President McCartney, and the Library Program Committee, which is charged with deciding what needs to be in the library. The program committee includes students, faculty and staff.”

What happens after the selection of the architect?
“The next step is to spend a year in a programming phase with members of the community partnering with the architects. After that would come the design phase. For the programming phase, the architects will bring a deep understanding of libraries. They will help us grapple with what parts of the collection should stay here and what parts might be kept elsewhere. We are committed to growing our library collection at the same level of excellence, which means we can’t build one building big enough to house what it will become. We’re also in a period where we have an unprecedented number of choices for ways to store knowledge—more than we’ve had in centuries. The library is more than just a box for books. Humanists sometimes make the analogy of the library as a lab because of the way it brings resources together. We need to be thinking about that while we are working to meet the needs of multiple library users.”

What are the biggest misconceptions you’ve heard on campus about the library renovation project?
“One misconception is that we are going to be choosing only one format for storing our collection; that we would opt for all books or all digital. The reality is that we can’t choose just one—we need to make commitments in both of those areas. And we know we have to keep rebalancing those commitments in ways that meet the needs of students, faculty and librarians going forward. Another misconception is that the way we’ve housed our collections in the past is the best way for the future. I heard Jeffrey Schnapp of Harvard University (and founding director of the Stanford Humanities Lab) speak recently about this. He acknowledged that for decades, the stacks were the best technology we had for storing, mapping and sharing the knowledge contained in books. But, as he said, we may need to use stacks differently in the future. A final misconception is that we’re already done with the library programming project and we’ve made all the decisions about what will go into Neilson. Actually, that process is just beginning.”

What else is important for people to know about the library initiative?
“One thing that people have rightly understood about this project is that renovating a library is different from renovating any other building on campus. Reimagining the library is special because it symbolizes how we see intellectual life at Smith. The campus understands that this is an incredibly important project for the college. Gloria Steinem said that ‘dreaming is a form of planning.’ So our new library website asks ‘What library are you dreaming?’ As someone who has spent her career studying the history of the book, it is a thrilling opportunity and an honor to be joining Smith at a time when we’re reimagining our library. It’s one of the most exciting tasks an academic community can come together around.”