Press "Enter" to skip to content

UVa officially changes name of Alderman Library

Alderman Library’s time has officially come to end.

The University of Virginia’s largest library will henceforth be known as Shannon Library.

The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors voted on Friday to change the name.

Edwin Alderman, the school’s first and longest serving president who held the title from 1905 until 1931, has become the target of criticism in recent years for his dedication to eugenics, a movement devoted to improving the human species through the control of hereditary factors — often at the expense of Black, mentally challenged and impoverished communities.

A 2018 university report on the school’s history of racism determined that Alderman led the charge to transform UVa into a “leading eugenics research center.”

The library had been named after him since it opened in 1938.

Eighty-five years later, the school’s governing board has chosen to change the name to that of the school’s fourth president, Edgar Shannon, who “ushered UVa into the second half of the 20th century and transformed UVa into a modern research university,” according to a summary included in the board’s agenda ahead of the vote.

An internal group of researchers at the library began considering a name change in December 2019. The movement picked up speed after the library closed in March 2020 for a nearly four-year, $141 million renovation and expansion. In June 2021, John Unsworth, the university librarian and dean of libraries, submitted a formal request for a name change to the school’s Naming and Memorials Committee.

When considering new names, the committee specifically focused on other university presidents. That decision drew some criticism from Board of Visitors members, including Rachel Sheridan.

“They narrowed the decision to seven human beings. And I for one think that there are more than seven human beings worth honoring in this institution,” Sheridan said at a Thursday meeting of the board’s Buildings and Grounds Committee.

But Sheridan and nine others on the 11-person Building and Grounds Committee ultimately voted in favor of changing the name to Shannon Library Thursday. The following day, the full Board of Visitors voted in agreement and the change became official.

One committee member chose to abstain on Thursday. Paul Harris read a six-minute prepared speech criticizing the change, saying it was a “reminder of the graceless world in which we live.”

“I would like to see this university devote its resources to building bridges across the issues that divide us rather than searching through stacks in the library to find human imperfections of past leaders for the sole purpose of condemning those who did not and cannot meet unforgiving and impossible standards,” Harris said.

Harris’ position is not shared by many in the university community, including students.

Student Council members previously passed a resolution to support an open letter urging the board to change the library’s name.

“With the renovation and reopening of the main library, the University is left with an important decision to make: to take the morally correct stance and cease honoring Edwin Alderman, a known racist and proud eugenicist,” the letter reads.

Shannon served as university president from 1959 to 1974, a tumultuous time for UVa and colleges across the country. A World War II combat veteran himself, Shannon supported the student-led protests against the Vietnam War at UVa; he even wrote a letter to then-President Richard Nixon opposing the expansion of the conflict into Cambodia. He also led the school to become co-educational, recommending women be admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences. Later, he pushed the school to increase Black admissions.

Board of Visitors member John Nau, who leads the Buildings and Grounds Committee, was a UVa student during Shannon’s tenure.

“In 1968, most of us were going to go into the service,” he said. “He kept the fire going, but he turned the heat down. He did a miraculous job in having this not become a front-page school like a whole lot of other ones.”

Michael Suarez, an English professor who leads the Naming and Memorials Committee, said that Shannon’s legacy, 50 years after he left the office of the president and under 21st-century scrutiny, reflects the principles the university community holds dear.

“President Shannon’s accomplishments embody the values that the University aspires to in its striving to be both great and good,” Suarez wrote in a statement. “It was President Edgar Shannon who ushered the University into the second half of that century and whose leadership largely gave our University the character, values and aspirations by which we understand the University of Virginia and its commitments to excellence today.”

While Shannon’s name will replace Alderman’s on letterhead and signs, not every memorial to the university’s first president will disappear.

There will be dedications to Alderman installed within the building’s central arch as well as east and west arches. An existing plaque in front of the building that honors Alderman will remain.

A grand reopening for the newly remodeled library is scheduled for April 4.


Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *