Reclaiming Old Library
The recent decision to remove M. Carey Thomas’s name from the façade of Old Library is part of a broader reckoning with the College’s history.
On March 21, President Kim Cassidy and the Board of Trustees announced that later this year the College will remove the inscription honoring Bryn Mawr’s second president, M. Carey Thomas, from the entrance of Old Library.
In a message to the community, the board explained that the decision reflects an acknowledgment of “the harm and hurt Thomas’s legacy of exclusion, racism, and antisemitism has caused for so many” and the continued damage inflicted by the presence of the inscription on the building.
“This decision,” Cassidy wrote in a separate message, “reached after very careful research and deliberation by the board, is reflective of how our thinking must continue to evolve as we seek to create a campus community that feels inclusive and welcoming to all.”
Listening and Learning
The decision to remove the inscription followed several years of listening and dialogue, where the board sought out the reflections and experiences of many in the community—including students, alumnae/i, staff, faculty, and administrators—who are engaged in ongoing campus work toward equity and belonging.
From 1935 through 2017, Old Library was known as Thomas Library. In the wake of the 2017 white supremacy protests in Charlottesville, Va., Cassidy announced a moratorium on using the name and in a 2018 decision by the Board of Trustees, the building was renamed Old Library.
In researching the progress made by the community in building a fair, open, diverse, and inclusive campus since the 2018 renaming, the board concluded that retaining Thomas’s inscription on the building “now sends an unwelcoming message too powerfully placed to be offset or clarified by countering narratives elsewhere.”
Cassidy stressed in her March message that the College will not erase Thomas from its official history, but rather will seek balance in how she is credited for her work in women’s education while acknowledging the social beliefs she held and promulgated that conflict with our current values at the College.
“We recognize the importance of addressing all aspects of Thomas’s legacy,” said Cassidy, explaining that the inscription, along with the previously displayed bust sculpture and oil portrait of Thomas currently in storage, will be accessible for further intellectual inquiry that allows for purposeful engagement with these objects and a reckoning with the full stories behind them.
During her tenure as dean of the College from 1884 to 1894 and then as president until her retirement in 1922, 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. Her death 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.
As steadfast as Thomas was in her efforts to build a first-rate academic institution for women, her vision was limited to the education of wealthy white women, and her embrace of eugenics and outspoken racist and antisemitic beliefs have caused pain for generations of students, staff, and faculty.
By removing the inscription, the College strives to open a door to healing and encourage the continuing work to make Bryn Mawr a community of welcome and belonging.
This step is part of a broader effort 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 Thomas’s complicated legacy is seen as a key step in a larger process of articulating and embracing a fuller sense of the College’s past.
As part of the process of reclaiming Old Library, the campus community came together in April for two events designed to connect the building with the College’s current values and aspirations and recreate it as a space of campus ownership and belonging.
The first event, on April 14, focused on the history of Old Library, including more recent reflections of its use and meaning to current students, faculty, and staff. Professor Emerita of Sociology Mary Osirim reflected on hearing Angela Davis and other icons of activism speak in the space, while Rob Williams, a longtime Housekeeping staff member, shared his own memories of the space. Fatmata Sesay ’23, who serves as serves as SGA’s Social Justice and Equity Chair and a student coordinator for the Black at Bryn Mawr program, talked about how she welcomed the recent decision, having felt uncomfortable in the building for most of her time at Bryn Mawr.
The event also offered tangible ways of reclaiming the space, including an interactive dance performance and the opportunity to paint words or phrases on rocks, signaling the values and emotions community members want to see reflected in the building.
A second event, held on Taylor Drive a week later, gave the campus community an opportunity to enjoy music and ice cream and get creative as they shared ideas—in words and images—about who else they would like to see recognized on the walls of Old Library and what events or alternative traditions they would like to bring to Old Library/Great Hall. Pieces created became part of a temporary exhibit in Great Hall.
Looking to the Future
Bryn Mawr’s students, faculty, and staff have long been engaged in exploring the College’s histories and legacies (see sidebar on previous page). Since publishing Offerings to Athena, the 125th anniversary volume of student writings about the College, in 2010, the College has increasingly formalized its support of ways to share its rich histories—including the Black at Bryn Mawr tour, digital and physical exhibits including Who Built Bryn Mawr?, and HIST 268 Telling Bryn Mawr Histories, a Praxis course that leads students through research in the College archives.
“The work of creating a campus of inclusion and belonging is continual and requires focus, renewal, and purposeful action,” says Cassidy. “I am proud of the work we are collectively doing to understand our past and simultaneously create new systems that promote equity, inclusion, and belonging for the future.”
The History section of the College’s website, now named the “History and Legacies Overview,” has been streamlined to better reflect ongoing College projects of reckoning and repair and to provide links to past history projects and related resources.
News of the decision to remove M. Carey Thomas’s name from Old Library was shared by the College on its social media accounts, eliciting deep engagement and a robust discussion.
Many were heartened by what they saw as a thoughtful and necessary step toward a more inclusive future at the College. Others saw the decision as erasing Thomas’s legacy.
We encourage you to join our Bryn Mawr College and Bryn Mawr Alumnae social media accounts and stay connected.
Twitter @BrynMawrAlum @BrynMawrCollege
Facebook Facebook.com/ BrynMawrCollege Facebook.com/brynMawrAlumnaeAssociation
Instagram @brynmawrcollege see the full list here.