As Library Redesign Engagement Continues, Differing Opinions Emerge

Photo by Sara Del Villar '17 | The Library Program Committee and the Student Advisory Committee encourage student and faculty input regarding library renovations through workshops, presentations and surveys.  

Rachel Farber '16 Assistant News Editor

Propped up against the wall in Neilson Library sits a large color-coded calendar that details the upcoming library redesign events on campus.

The calendar displays the Library Program Committee’s campus engagement effort to collect input about what students, staff and faculty want in the new library, as well as to increase awareness about the redesign process.

Two committees are at the forefront of the effort to gather on-campus opinions. The first is the Library Program Committee, which is an appointed group of faculty, administrators, students and trustees that works to identify and prioritize the spaces, services, collections and academic support centers that currently exist in the library and how they are used.

The Program Committee has hosted a series of engagement workshops throughout the fall semester. Beginning in November, the committee will hold several days of playback sessions to present what they’ve gathered and ask, according to Provost and Dean of Faculty Katherine Rowe, “Here’s what we’re hearing, is that right?” The sessions will also allow groups to respond and ask more questions. Later, the committee will provide recommendations to the president and Board of Trustees based on what it has learned from campus engagement.

After several drafts of program recommendations, more playback sessions and approval of the President and Board, Maya Lin, along with the architecture firm Shepley Bulfinch, will begin to design the new library.

The other committee at the forefront of this effort is the Student Advisory Committee, co-chaired by Sarah Evans ’18 and Maria Wood ’AC. The Student Advisory Committee, made up of 12 student members, is in charge of student involvement for the redesign of Neilson.

“From the beginning... our main goal is to get as many voices as we can in the most diverse way we can,” said Evans.

Evans and Wood hold house teas to gather students’ feedback, table in the Campus Center and plan to collaborate with other student organizations on campus.

Evans and Wood meet regularly with faculty and representatives from Shepley Bulfinch, as well as members of the administration to discuss the opinions and concerns they have heard from the student body. They are also active members of the Program Committee.

“In a Program Committee meeting... one of our jobs was to represent the students’ voice,” said Wood. “If the student voice is interested in conveying something in opposition to what faculty want, to what the architects are wanting to push, we have to be willing and able to speak up.”

Evans and Wood were initially unsure if their positions would be taken seriously by the Program Committee or if the committee would make decisions without them. Upon joining the commitee, however, the two students were met with genuine interest and consideration for their findings.

“Representatives from Shepley Bulfinch and the administration have been incredibly interested and eager to hear all different viewpoints and to consider all the ideas that come their way,” said Wood.

“We have been actively making sure that [overriding student opinion] does not happen,” said Evans.

Over the summer, Smith representatives and Shepley Bulfinch held three engagement sessions, and two so far this fall. According to an Oct. 15 presentation by Shepley Bulfinch at a workshop with leaders of student organizations, approximately 158 people on campus were recorded to have participated in Shepley Bulfinch engagements. This number includes 70 students and 20 faculty members through web surveys, tabling and one-on-one interviews with brightspot, a consulting company that develops spaces for universities and other institutions. Evans and Wood hope to reach 40 to 50 percent of the student body through their outreach.

“I feel like students have the opportunity to make a huge impact on this process, but they need to participate,” said Wood. “We’re having engagement sessions that students are not coming to. We’re trying to adjust the sessions so that they’re at times and [in] formats that students can participate in.”

Initiatives continue to reach out to the Smith community. “The approach is to try to reach... faculty, students and staff in as many ways as we can,” Rowe said. The Program Committee has conducted online surveys, polled students in the Campus Center and holds weekly open meetings on a variety of topics, including accessibility and sustainability in the future library.

Some faculty question the inclusivity and transparency of the process. “The fact that many of these sessions have taken place at the busiest moments of the teaching week makes it difficult to attend,” said Justina Gregory, professor of classical languages and literature.

Gregory served on the Library Committee until resigning her position last year. The Library Committee, an elected body of faculty that deals with all aspects of the library and is not specifically focused on the redesign, includes several members who also serve in the Program Committee as of this fall. Gregory resigned her position on the committee as she felt it was being excluded from the major decisions of the redesign, such as the decision to have an off-campus annex. The Library Committee has seen another resignation this year for similar reasons.

Patrick Coby, professor of government, believes that the Library Committee and faculty in general have been appropriately involved in the redesign process. He mentioned that there are several workshops being held this fall for faculty engagement and cited the inclusion of several members of the Library Committee in the Program Committee.

“[Fall] may not seem like late,” Gregory said. “But the fact is... the major decisions having to do with the size of the new library complex and the contents of the new library complex... had already been made, and the fact that that’s already happened means that the present engagement process is something of an exercise in public relations.”

Program development – deciding what the new library needs – is still in process. The committee continues to build a framework to determine which books will stay on-campus and which will go to the off-campus annex.

“If you get a system in place where things could both come and go... I think it will prove to be sufficient for most people’s uses,” said Coby. “It would be unfortunate if the library arises and suddenly people are discovering that what they thought was there isn’t there and they don’t think they can easily get to it, and I think we can avoid making that kind of mistake.”

Some students and faculty remain concerned about how many, if any, books will be moved to the annex. “We don’t know how much to mourn or resist,” said Gregory.

All dates are currently tentative. The finalization of program development is set to occur in May after playback sessions and pending approval by the Board of Trustees. The committee will transition into the design process in the spring.