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Neilson Library Frequently Asked Questions

students walking near bookcases in the Neilson Library

As the intellectual heart of the campus, Neilson Library advances and celebrates learning, benefiting all who come to Smith. Ground was broken in October 2017 for a new Neilson Library designed by renowned architectural designer Maya Lin. Her vision incorporates the original 1909 facade and reimagines the complex as an intellectual commons. The project is complete and the building is now open to approved students, faculty, and staff. For additional access details, see Library Services During COVID-19.

What types of sustainable practices are being used in the new building?

Creating a sustainable building has been a critical objective in the design and architectural planning process. See Neilson Sustainability Features.

What part of the current Neilson Library building was preserved?

The current Neilson Library was built in phases beginning in 1909. The original 1909 facade of the building has been retained for its historic significance, yet remodeled and brought up to date with current infrastructure and technology.

How is alumnae gymnasium a part of the Smith College Libraries?

The newly-renovated alumnae gymnasium provides additional library spaces, including a User Experience Lab, specialized printing room, collaborative workspaces, study spaces, experiential studios and a computer lab. alumnae gymnasium is connected to the Neilson Library via a tunnel lit by skylights, and will provide a 24-hour study space for Smith students. alumnae gymnasium has not yet opened for campus use.

What types of accessible services are offered in the new building?

The design and architect team worked with the college’s Office of Disability Services throughout the project to ensure that students, faculty, staff and visitors with disabilities will have equal access to and be able to participate fully in the new library complex and its programs, services and technology. Additionally, the Office of Disability Services will maintain a presence in the Learning Commons, which will also include an Assistive Technology Room.

How much did the project cost and how did Smith pay for it?

The renovation and reimagining of Neilson Library, which includes new construction and renovation of Neilson, the renovation of alumnae gymnasium, site preparation and landscaping, is budgeted at approximately $120 million. (In comparison, Ford Hall, opened in 2010, was built for about $70 million.) Funding came from three sources: borrowing, capital project funds and philanthropy. Learn more about making a gift to support the programming needs for the new Neilson.

Did Smith College employ union workers to build the new Neilson Library?

Smith College is committed to fair labor practices and has a long history of successful construction projects on campus utilizing a mix of union and non-union contractors. Learn more...

When did the project start and how long did it take?

Engagement with faculty and students took place during fall 2015; design work began in winter 2016. Construction began in the summer of 2017 and the building opened on March 29, 2021. The library staff maintains a timeline of the project’s phases.

Why were Maya Lin and Shepley Bulfinch chosen for this project?

The Lin/Shepley Bulfinch team was chosen for the project after an international search. Maya Lin’s celebrated work in the combined fields of architecture, art and landscape, coupled with Shepley Bulfinch’s extensive experience in creating 21st-century academic libraries, created a new library that is not only functional but forward looking.

How do you “futureproof” a library? How do you think 50 years ahead?

An important goal in the design and construction of a new Neilson is to create a resilient building with spaces that are flexible and adaptable to changing needs. While we can’t predict what those needs may be, we can design spaces that can respond to technological changes and be reprogrammed for new uses without great cost.

Does the building include quiet study spaces?

Yes! One of the main goals of the renovation is to create more welcoming, quiet study spaces, as well as spaces for other activities. Maya Lin has spoken a lot about contemplative spaces for work, and that approach is evident in her buildings. The Neilson Library will also connect to alumnae gymnasium, which in the future will be a 24-hour study space.

Are there faculty offices in the new library?

There are no faculty offices in the new Neilson, but there are a number of classrooms and collaboration spaces that will be available for faculty use. For details on recommendations on uses of space in the new building, please see the library program planning document. This document was developed in fall 2015 by the Library Program Committee, with assistance from the architects, and submitted to the board of trustees in early 2016.

Will the library remove books from the collection as it expands its collaborative and other spaces in the new building?

There are no plans to deaccession books; however, the construction of the new Five College Library Annex provides an opportunity for lesser-used collections to be shelved offsite with a quick retrieval system, opening up valuable space in the new library and providing a better organized, easily browsable stack area for the more heavily used collections that remain on campus.

What will happen with the College Archives?

The College Archives, Sophia Smith Collection and the Mortimer Rare Book Collection have combined to form a unified Special Collections department within the Libraries. These collections, staff and teaching spaces will fill the Mary Maples Dunn south wing of the new Neilson Library.  These collections, along with staff and teaching spaces, will fill the Mary Maples Dunn south wing, facilitating access and use of these unique and rare materials across the curriculum. Special Collections materials will begin moving into the Neilson Library in June 2021.

Alumnae and friends of the college can be part of this exciting initiative by giving to The Smith Fund: Resourceful Smith. Your support will ensure that Neilson Library continues to be a vibrant hub for learning and scholarship.

To learn more about leadership giving opportunities to support the new Neilson, contact Betsy Carpenter '93, director of development, at 413-585-2052 or