Old Library Renaming
The building now known as Old Library opened its doors in 1907. During the celebrations of the College’s 50th year in 1935, the library was named in honor of M. Carey Thomas, the College’s influential first dean and second president. This was also the year of Thomas’s death. In 2018, the building was renamed Old Library and in 2023 the building was returned to its original architectural facade.
During her tenure as Dean of the College from 1884 to 1894, and then as President until her retirement in 1922, M. Carey Thomas was one of the country’s leading public advocates for women’s education, and was also prominent in the women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and world peace movements. Thomas’s passing away elicited tributes from leaders of educational institutions across the U.S., who recognized and praised her significant national impact on higher education for women at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
However, naming this building after Thomas also functioned an act of historical erasure. It silenced and erased the experiences of those who had been affected negatively by the racist and anti-Semitic policies that Thomas promulgated as College president and her active, public embrace of eugenics.¹
Thomas acted on her views in ways that shaped the policies, values, and even the physical structures of the institution, and these actions harmed students, faculty, and staff. Her actions impacted prospective students of color and Jewish students who were excluded from the College as well as students of color and Jewish students who were later admitted to the College and experienced the legacy of her decisions. At odds with the values of inclusion to which the College currently aspires, her actions created harm for the entire campus community.
In the context of the 2017 white supremacy protests in Charlottesville, VA, President Kim Cassidy announced a moratorium on the use of the names “Thomas Library” and within it, the "Thomas Great Hall" in all official representations and formed a History Working Group to explore renaming the library. The Board of Trustees announced in August 2018 their endorsement of the History Working Group recommendation to refer to the building officially as the "Old Library" and the "Great Hall." The Telling Bryn Mawr Histories Group was convened in fall 2018 to provide public acknowledgement of M. Carey Thomas’s racism and anti-Semitism and their impact on Bryn Mawr; to create more opportunities to explore the College’s history; and to amplify the experiences of staff and people of color who have contributed to the College.
Bryn Mawr now seeks to provide the College community with opportunities for engagement, reflection, and healing and to contribute to efforts to address systemic issues of racial bias on campus. The acknowledgment of acts of erasure and Thomas’s history are key steps in a larger process of articulating and embracing a fuller sense of the College’s past.
¹For example, President Thomas shared her belief in eugenics in her October 4, 1916, “Address at the Opening of the College,” which was later printed in volume 10, no. 3 of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin.