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Smith College’s newly renovated Neilson Library honors its past as it moves into the future

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Smith College’s newly renovated Neilson Library honors its past as it moves into the future

Adding more space for the library's Special Collections was a design imperative.

By John Caulfield, Senior Editor | July 9, 2021
Smith College's 200,000-sf Neilson Library has undergone an extensive renovation and expansion.
Courtesy Smith College

On March 29, the Smith College Neilson Library, on the Northampton, Mass., campus of Smith College, reopened to students after a four-year, $120 million renovation and expansion that reimagine the library’s 200,000 sf, in the conception of its architectural designer Maya Lin, as an intellectual commons.

Maya Lin Studios teamed with principal architect Shepley Bulfinch and the construction management firm Shawmut Design & Construction on what was Smith College’s largest capital project in a decade.

Also see: A video tour of the completed library here.

The original Smith College library opened in 1909 and had gone through three rounds of renovation before this current project, which included replacing wings that blocked the view of this Berkshires-nestled campus (designed by Frederick Law Olmstead) with two new wings that have a curved, light-filled design made from masonry, wood, and glass.

The library is illuminated by an oculus

An oculus provides natural light throughout the library's four floors.


The original building now forms the library’s core whose spacious atrium is illuminated by a four-story oculus. The central floor offers a massive reading area, and the building features flexible and collaborative workspaces, classrooms, contemplative study areas, a sunken courtyard, and event spaces that include an accessible outdoor amphitheater. On the fourth floor, a Skyline Terrace provides sweeping views and an outdoor patio.


Bringing Smith College Neilson Library Into the 21st Century

One of the new wings added to the library

One of two wings, made of masonry, wood, and glass, that were added to the library's original building.


There’s a Digital Media Hub where students can record podcasts, videos and other media; self-service labs where students can use technologies, such as spatial analysis, gaming software, survey software, and GIS; a User Experience Lab for research and usability testing; and access to large-format and 3D printers, as well as other creativity tools.

The north wing is filled with spaces to support active learning and scholarship, entrepreneurship, and innovation. The south wing brings together special collections—40,000 lineal ft of archival materials—into one climate-controlled space.

“Our team brought to life a groundbreaking vision, one which honors Smith College’s rich history and tradition while providing bespoke capabilities that will serve generations of future students with the latest in sustainability and technology,” says Ron Simoneau, Shawmut’s Executive Vice President.

As part of this project, the nearby Alumnae Gym was renovated and connected to Neilson Library by an interior walkway.  Edwina von Gal with Ryan Associates designed the surrounding exterior landscaping.

Neilson Library’s sustainability aspects include a high-performance building envelope, advanced daylighting strategies, and materials that promote health and wellness. The building also has the ability to become an all-electric complex and is pursuing LEED V.4 Gold certification.


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