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UVa's Alderman Library reopens after 3-year, $141M renovation

The University of Virginia’s main library reopened its doors on Monday after a three-year, $141 million renovation.

The name, however, is still under construction.

“Our dean, most of the library staff and a lot of UVa staff are really hoping for a new name,” UVa Library spokeswoman Elyse Girard told The Daily Progress.

Alderman Library is named after the university’s first president, Edwin Alderman who served as the university’s chief executive from 1905 to 1931. The Alderman name has come under scrutiny in recent years, however, due to his involvement with the eugenics, a movement devoted to improving the human species through the control of hereditary factors. Alderman led the charge to transform UVa into a “leading eugenics research center,” according to a 2018 university report on the school’s history of racism.

And while eugenics popularized many health care practices accepted today — such as birth control, prenatal screenings and marriage restrictions prohibiting close relations from reproducing — the movement has become more associated with its controversial applications — such as compulsory sterilization, racial segregation and forced abortions and pregnancies.

A committee made up of library staff was formed in 2019 to look into Alderman’s connections to eugenics.

“Based on what we learned from that we thought that considering a new name to go along with this building would be the best,” said Girard.

Girard and others in the UVa community are hoping to see the library’s name changed to Shannon Library, in honor of UVa’s fourth president, Edgar Shannon. Shannon served during a politically tumultuous time in the university’s, and country’s, history. During his tenure from 1959 to 1974, Shannon admitted the first female undergraduates in 1970, pushed to increase Black admissions and endorsed a student-led protest against the Vietnam War.

Two years later, the library filed a report including its findings to the school’s Naming and Memorials Committee. After conducting its own research, the naming committee then made a recommendation to the university’s Board of Visitors’ Building and Grounds Committee, which has the final say on the matter.

In December, the university’s Board of Visitors’ Building and Grounds Committee deferred a decision to rename the library until March.

“There is still work to address and complete on this issue,” said Chairman of the Building and Grounds Committee John L. Nau III in December. He promised that the board would “definitely” revisit the conversation at its meeting in March.

The deferral will delay some updates to the library, Girard said, including letterheads, exterior signs and references to Alderman in the library’s Memorial Hall, the building’s main entrance.

That said, the library itself is now fully open to the public.

For some students, especially fourth-year students graduating this year, the spring semester could be their only chance to use the renovated space.

“We wanted to open as soon as we could for the students who haven’t been in the building so they can use the space for an entire semester,” said Girard. “Fourth-years are in awe of the new spaces and resources that they get to use. We hope it’s a positive experience for them now.”

The building has the capacity to hold 1.5 million books, but relocating those books will take several more months.

Prior to the renovation, which began in 2020, the library was known for being dark, cramped and difficult to navigate. Now, the space has been extended by 130,000 square feet with another 100,000 square feet undergoing a significant remodel that included the installation of large windows and skylights to bring in more natural lighting. The windows are coated with a special covering to protect the books from being affected by ultraviolet rays.

“It really is light and bright,” said Girard. “It seems much more open, friendly and inviting than it did before. It’s much easier to navigate — that’s been the biggest thing people said to me, and they’re amazed at how well-lit it is.”

The library now holds 1,445 seats, almost double the previous capacity for 800, as well as six conference rooms, three classrooms, eight study areas, five reading rooms and a large seminar room. In addition to these academic spaces, a new café, part of the Saxby brand of student-run coffees hops, is taking over part of the new library. The café is set to open on Feb. 5, according to Girard.

Access to the building has also been increased with several new public entrances, one from University Avenue and another connecting the second floor of Alderman to the adjacent Clemons Library.

Some of the older features of the library have survived the renovation largely unscathed.

The McGregor Room, fondly known as the “Harry Potter Room” by many students, retains the same quiet, comfortable atmosphere of an antique reading room: deep leather armchairs, wood paneling, Oriental rugs and a central fireplace. Minor behind-the-scenes updates were done to Memorial Hall and the library’s Reference Room, though they appear the same, according to Girard.

“There are some really great familiar parts to the library, and the rest of it is absolutely new,” said Girard. “We’re excited to have people come explore and find their own favorite parts.”

Alderman Library is already open to the public, but a grand reopening celebrating the recent renovation will take place on April 4.


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