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History of the Smith College Libraries

William Allan Neilson Library

Neilson Library 1940

From 1875 to 1909, Smith College relied primarily on the private Clarke Library and the public Forbes Library (dedicated in 1894). The first college reference library was formed with a $4,000 allocation in 1878 and housed in various rooms in College Hall; it was moved to Seelye Hall when that building opened in 1900.

The core of the present main building was erected in 1909, funded by a gift from Andrew Carnegie and matching gifts from alumnae and friends. It was enlarged in 1937 and, in 1946, named the William Allan Neilson Library in honor of the College's third president. In 1962, two wings were added and extensive interior rearrangements made. The last major expansion and renovation began in 1978 and was completed with the rededication of Neilson Library in November 1982 and of the converted Alumnae Gymnasium in May 1983.

In the fall of 1987, the libraries acquired their millionth volume. This watershed was celebrated by the acquisition of the Epistole Devotissime of St. Catherine of Siena in an Aldine edition of 1500 to be designated officially as volume 1,000,000. The Smith College Libraries now hold over 1.4 million items including books, periodicals, microforms, maps, scores, recordings, manuscripts, archives, film and video, computer-readable materials, graphic arts, memorabilia and cuneiform tablets.

In 2010, 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. Construction for the project began in 2017 and the new Neilson Library opened on March 29, 2021. It retains the original 1909 building while restoring the campus flow disrupted by a series of later additions. Learn more about the New Neilson Library renovation project.

Branch Libraries

Werner Josten Performing Arts Library

The Music Department began its collection in 1911 and hired the first music librarian in 1922. The library was transferred administratively to the college Libraries in 1968. That same year it was moved to new quarters in the Mendenhall Performing Arts Center and named for Werner Josten (a professor in the Music Department).

Young Science Library

Started in 1888, the science department libraries originally included Chemistry in Stoddard Hall, Physics in Lilly Hall, Geology in Seelye Hall, Botany, Zoology and Bacteriology in Burton Hall. Other collections, now merged with the Neilson Library or Science Library collections, were located in Scott Gymnasium (Physical Education) and the Plant House (Horticulture). In 1937, some thought was given to starting a psychology library in Pierce Hall, but the plan was never realized.

The science libraries were consolidated and became part of the Smith College Libraries in 1965 when they were moved into the Science Library in Sabin-Reed Hall. In 1991, the Science Library moved to Bass Hall and was named the Anita O'K. and Robert R. Young Science Library. In December 2016, Young Science Library was closed so that the building could be used as the main campus library (the Young Library) during the construction of the New Neilson Library (2017-2021). Materials from Young Library were moved to Neilson Library and the Young Library closed in 2021.

Hillyer Art Library

The Art Department started a collection of books and other materials as early as 1876. The Hillyer library was transferred administratively from the Art Department to the college Libraries in 1968.

The Hillyer Art Library, after a few years in Stoddard Hall during the construction of the new Fine Arts Center, occupied its present facility in 1972.

During the renovation of the Fine Arts Center from 2000 to 2002, art library collections were divided between temporary art library facilities in Bell Hall at the Clarke School for the Deaf and the Smith College Libraries storage facility at 126 West Street. With reconstruction of the Brown Fine Arts Center complete, Hillyer Art Library reopened its new facilities in August 2002.

Special Collections

Mortimer Rare Book Collection

As a part of the 1962 addition to the Neilson Library, the paneled Rare Book Room was created with its own secure stacks.

The collection of rare books had been started by its first curator, Marion Brown, sometime in the early 1940s with items culled from the general collection. In January 1994 the Board of Trustees voted to name it the Mortimer Rare Book Room, in honor of Ruth Mortimer Lancaster '53, curator and assistant librarian since 1975. Following her death on January 31, 1994, the room was dedicated in April of 1994 amidst an outpouring of special funds and gifts. In summer 2017 the Mortimer Rare Book Room, together with the rest of the Smith College Special Collections, was temporarily relocated to the Young Library in order to make way for the construction of the New Neilson Library (2017-2021). The Mortimer Rare Book Collection moved to its permanent home in Neilson Library in 2021.

View a history of the Mortimer Rare Book Room, written by Barbara Blumenthal '75, who was the Rare Book Specialist from 1993-2017.

Smith College Archives & the Sophia Smith Collection

The College formally established the Smith College Archives in 1921 when, after years of unofficial collecting, Nina Browne, class of 1882, was appointed archivist of the College.

The Sophia Smith Collection, one of the two principal repositories for primary sources in U.S. women's history, was founded in 1942 by the Friends of the Libraries.

These collections were administratively separate from the College Library until 1984, when they became library departments. From the 1960's, they occupied space in Neilson Library, and in 1982 moved to the renovated and now-adjoining Alumnae Gymnasium. In summer 2017 the Sophia Smith Collection and College Archives, together with the Mortimer Rare Book Room, were temporarily relocated to the Young Library in order to make way for the construction of the New Neilson Library (2017-2021). Both the College Archives and Sophia Smith Collection moved to their permanent home in Neilson Library in 2021.

Alumnae Gymnasium

In 1890, the Alumnae Gymnasium (Alumnae Gym) was built using funds raised by the Alumnae Association. The building of the Gymnasium was the association’s first major achievement and continues to be a visual testament of alumnae devotion.

Alumnae Gymnasium is the work of distinguished architect William C. Brocklesby. The prominent feature in the central bay of the gymnasium - the rusticated round-headed arch - as well as the broad planes of the roofs and the central tower all show the responsive nature of Brocklesby to the Romanesque Revival style of Henry Hobson Richardson, a powerful influence on the American architecture during the 19th century.

In 1924, Alumnae Gymnasium became an adjunct to the new Scott Gymnasium after it was over-burdened by the increased number of sports and activities that followed the College’s expansion. Alumnae Gym was a space for individual sports and recreation, parties and celebrations. It was also used as a theater when the Students’ Building was demolished to make way for the Science Center.

In 1974-1975, a plan was made to demolish Alumnae Gymnasium due to a proposed expansion made to the Neilson Library, but this plan failed to be realized due to mounting Alumnae protests. An alternative plan was made to incorporate the old building into the new part of the Neilson Library, and an Alumnae rallied to raise money. Alumnae Gym was adapted to become a center for the most advanced techniques in library service as well as house the College Archives and the Sophia Smith Collection.

In 1984, the Nonprint Resources Center (NPRC) was opened in the lower level of the Alumnae Gymnasium and its first Director was appointed in 1987. In 1991, the former Electronics Department of the College was incorporated into the NPRC. In 1999, the NPRC split from the Libraries and became an administrative unit of Information Technology Services called Media Services. At that time, the collection of videotapes, films and other media materials became a unit of the Public Services Division of the Libraries. In 2001, the nonprint materials were moved to the circulation department of Neilson Library. In 2005, the Center was renamed the Center for Media Production (CMP) under the auspices of Educational Technology Services, a unit of Information Technology Services. In 2017, the Center for Media Production relocated to the Henshaw Complex to make way for the construction of the New Neilson Library (2017-2021).

In May 2017, Alumnae Gymnasium closed for renovation, with the College Archives and the Sophia Smith Collection moving temporarily to the Young Library, and then permanently to the renovated Neilson Library in 2021. The Alumnae Gym renovation was also concluded in 2021, and now houses additional Smith College Libraries spaces, services, and staff.