Renovations push Snell Library ‘ahead of the curve’

Snell library’s main staircase
Act one of Snell Library’s renovation resulted in an enlightened main staircase. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

A warm and welcoming corridor of light beckons visitors to the new stairwell of Snell Library on Northeastern’s Boston campus. Its entrance inspires Dan Cohen, the library dean, as he envisions more cutting-edge renovations on the way.

“It’s a great preview of what’s to come,” says Cohen, who is presiding over a makeover of the four-story building over the next two years. “We’ll have an incredible new library top to bottom.”

The overhaul has been planned in consultation with students, faculty and staff. It’s enabling Snell to stay ahead of changes wrought by the digital age, transforming the library into a hybrid resource of online and physical materials, a refuge for students who need to escape everyday distractions, and a collaborative place that connects everyone at the university.

“It’s not just staying relevant, but actually getting ahead of the curve in terms of the forms of knowledge and the ways that we learn to do research in the future,” says Cohen, who also serves as vice provost for information collaboration and professor of history. “We have our radar on the horizon, and we are transforming both the physical building and the staff services so that we can meet those new forms of knowledge.”

Act one of the project was a brightening of the stairwell, newly encased in glass and opened in time to greet students for the fall semester. When the library’s makeover is complete in 2024, says Cohen, the first-floor concrete siding will be replaced with glass, enabling passersby to be drawn to its spine of light. 

Currently, workers are in the basement building out the library’s space for archives and special collections—some of which are also available digitally.

“We’re being sure to showcase our unique collections of materials for social movements in Boston from groups that are generally underrepresented in the historic and cultural record,” Cohen says. “We have a program called ‘Teaching with Archives’ that used to be held in a dark, unhappy room that will soon be a light-filled glass-enclosed space where students can have the experience of directly accessing archives and special collections.”

The library will remain open throughout the renovations. Updates will be posted on social media on those days when renovation noise may cause difficulty for students. “But that shouldn’t be a problem this semester while construction is in the basement,” says Kerri Vautour, the library’s marketing and communications manager.

In the spring semester, renovations will move to the fourth floor and then work their way down, story by story. The fourth and third floors will dramatically increase open and private study spaces in response to the needs of students.

The second floor’s emphasis on collaboration will be enhanced by an expanded center for media creation, 3D printing and other spaces for interdisciplinary work.

“In line with the new academic plan, the idea is to have these spaces in the library for groups to bump into each other and look over each other’s shoulders and ideally start working together on entirely new projects that are interdisciplinary and that span the multiple colleges that make up the university,” Cohen says. “We’re getting out ahead in terms of allowing for fruitful collaboration and cross-pollination between these different disciplines, knowing that they are using new approaches to the creation of knowledge.”

The most dramatic changes will be seen on the first floor, creating a strong first impression when the renovation work is done. The coffee shop that currently faces out to Snell Quad will be moved to another area of the first floor and replaced with an expanded, glass-enclosed space for events and meetings that will be accessible to the public.

There are more than 2 million visits to Snell a year, says Cohen. Its ongoing popularity and the promise of renovations that will increase its relevance are rebutting the doomsday warnings of the 1990s that libraries would be redundant in the digital age.

“People were saying that the web was the library,” Cohen recalls. “I think what that [forecast] leaves out is the librarians. People are important, and we have experts who will help students and faculty members in all forms of knowledge and every discipline. Collaboration is important; we have our group study rooms booked all the time. So you still need interactions with people to transform raw resources into new knowledge.”

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