All Spaces & Technology
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 building opened for campus use in March 2021.
The renovation features two new wings, dubbed “jewel boxes” by Maya Lin. The new Mary Maples Dunn south wing brings together Special Collections—the Sophia Smith Collection, Rare Books and College Archives—creating one-stop access to these important, rich materials and the staff who study and care for them. The new Ruth J. Simmons north wing is filled with spaces to support active learning and scholarship, entrepreneurship and innovation. It also includes a café and digital media hub that brings the community together. Natural light, an energy-efficient design, cutting-edge technology and flexible, collaborative work spaces combine to create a one-of-a-kind library for Smith’s next century.
East elevation, Seelye lawn: Rising from both the north and south sides of the building, two softly curved “jewel boxes” underscore Neilson’s status as the intellectual heart of the campus, beckoning visitors to explore Smith’s renowned special collections, rich archives of women’s history, rows upon rows of books and a new café and digital media hub.
East elevation at night
North elevation, view from Chapin Lawn: Strategically placed window walls ensure natural lighting for the café, study spaces, and reading rooms in the north jewel box.
North elevation at night
Sunken courtyard, north jewel box, and amphitheater: The grounds around the library will be opened up, linking the college’s science quadrangle with center campus and restoring integrity to Frederick Law Olmsted’s original campus plan. A sunken courtyard garden will allow daylight to stream into the library’s ground floor, while a wheelchair accessible outdoor amphitheater will provide shaded seating for studying, socializing, and outdoor events.
Sunken courtyard and north jewel box at night
West elevation, amphitheater and Burton lawn entrance: At the building’s core is the original 1909 facade, anchoring Neilson’s place in our community and respectfully paying homage to the long history of learning that has taken place inside its walls.
West elevation at night
South elevation, view from Green Street: Neilson’s Special Collections are among the most significant college research repositories in the country and represent one of the highest caliber teaching, research and experiential learning environments at the college. The collections will be enclosed in the center of the south jewel box wing in one visible and accessible location.
South elevation at night: The south wing incorporates an underground tunnel that connects the Neilson Library to the alumnae gymnasium, which will house additional Libraries staff and technology spaces, and serve as a 24-hour study space.
Ground Floor Central Hall: This floor will open onto Burton lawn. Visitors will find a Central Service Point for Library and Information services; research librarians, instructional technologists, and spatial analysts will provide collaboration and support for the Smith community.
Digital Media Hub, Ground Floor: This level will contain a Digital Media Hub, book stacks, technology and library instruction classrooms, recording studios, and a number of collaboration spaces.
Sunken Courtyard, Ground Floor: Light-filled study spaces and book stacks will surround the north wing’s sunken courtyard.
Central Hall, 1st Floor: One of the building’s most distinctive design details will be an oculus—a round skylight in the library’s central atrium that will be surrounded by a reflective, curved wall that captures and then magnifies outside light. Maya Lin describes it as a “contemporary sundial at the library’s historic core.”
North jewel box Café, 1st Floor: The center of the north jewel box opens up to a skylight on the 3rd floor, allowing sunlight to travel through the wing.
Conway Center, 1st Floor: The Jill Ker Conway Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center hosts and facilitates a slate of programs and activities focused on creative thinking, problem solving, interdisciplinary teamwork and development of business and entrepreneurial skills. The east portion of the building will also feature a large Browsing Room.
Learning Commons, 1st Floor: This area will offer a number of support services for students. Staff from the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning; the Spinelli Center for Quantitative Learning; the Office of Disability Services; and Wellness Services, as well as research librarians, academic technologists and more will be available for consultation.
Learning Commons, 2nd Floor: Book stacks will surround many of the exterior walls of the building. Compact and underground book storage will also be well utilized. The 2nd floor will also include the Caverno Room, a Reflection Room where students can pray and meditate, and a seminar classroom, one of two in the building that will be available for campus use.
North Jewel Box Study Space, 3rd Floor: The new library will include a variety of tables, chairs, study carrels, bench nooks, and seating options, as well as quiet study spaces.
South Jewel Box Special Collections Reading Room, 3rd Floor: Within the south wing, the Smith College Archives, the Sophia Smith Collection and Mortimer Rare Book Collection will unite to make scholarly material accessible to the community and curated by knowledgeable staff on hand to share their expertise.
Reading Room, 3rd Floor: A variety of study space options will be designated on this level, from open space areas to reservable group study rooms. The 2nd and 3rd floors will have individual study carrels; the building is designed to be successively quieter on each floor as visitors travel upward.
Skyline Reading Room, 4th Floor: This room will primarily be open as study space; a full catering kitchen will support the room’s occasional use as an event space. Visitors will also enjoy the outdoor patio, which will provide another space to study. On three sides of the patio, spectacular sitelines of the surrounding valley and Holyoke Range will be visible.
Skyline Reading Room, 4th Floor: From this floor, visitors can look through the top of the oculus, which extends down to the ground floor and provides sunlight for the center core of the library.
Site plan: The building project is aiming for LEED Gold certification. Architects and contractors are prioritizing natural materials (wood, stone, glass) and are sourcing local materials as much as possible. The college is considering a number of options for landscape design; possibilities include planting lawn alternatives, incorporating species that will thrive in a warming climate, and using native trees and shrubs, which provide habitats for birds and bees. The landscape plan will be finalized in 2020.
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. See Project Timeline for more detail of the project’s phases.
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.
The current Neilson Library was built in phases beginning in 1909. The original 1909 facade of the building was retained for its historic significance, yet remodeled and brought up to date with current infrastructure and technology.
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. See Construction Labor Practices to learn more.
The Neilson project’s goal was for women to represent 7% of construction workers and contractors. The actual number achieved was 6.9%. See Construction Labor Practices for more information.
An important goal in the design and construction of the new Neilson was 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.
Yes! One of the main goals of the renovation was 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 connect to alumnae gymnasium, which is a 24-hour study space.
There are no faculty offices in the new Neilson, but there are a number of classrooms and collaboration spaces that are 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. See also Reservable Spaces for a list of current teaching, study and collaboration spaces.
No books were deaccessioned. The construction of the new Five College Library Annex provided 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 better organized, easily browsable stack areas for the more heavily used collections that remain on campus.
The newly-renovated Alumnae Gymnasium provides additional library spaces, including a User Experience Lab, collaborative workspaces, study spaces, experimental studios and a computer lab. Alumnae Gymnasium is connected to Neilson Library via a tunnel lit by walkable skylights, and provides a 24-hour study space for Smith students.
The College Archives, Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History and the Mortimer Rare Book Collection have combined to form a unified Special Collections department within the Libraries. These three unique repositories, along with staff and teaching spaces, are located in the Mary Maples Dunn south wing, facilitating access and use of these unique and rare materials in the Gloria Steinem Reading room on the 3rd floor.
Creating a sustainable building was a critical objective in the design and architectural planning process. See Neilson Sustainability Features for more detail.
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 have equal access to and are be able to participate fully in the new library complex and its programs, services and technology. Additionally, the Office of Disability Services maintains a presence in the Learning Commons, which also includes an Assistive Technology Room.
The renovation and reimagining of Neilson Library, including new construction and renovation of Neilson, the renovation of alumnae gymnasium, site preparation and landscaping, was 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.
Please consider joining the Friends of the Smith College Libraries, or visit Giving Opportunities for more ways to ensure that Neilson Library continues to be a vibrant hub for learning and scholarship.
For inquiries about the building project, please use Ask Us.