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Community members react to renaming of Alderman Library to Shannon Library

The Board of Visitors voted nearly unanimously for the change, which has been a point of controversy at the University

<p>The University’s fourth President, Edgar Shannon, &nbsp;<a href="https://www.virginia.edu/aboutuva/presidents/shannon"><u>initiated</u></a> coeducation and racial integration at the University and has been recognized for his strong opposition to the Vietnam War and his support for student activism.&nbsp;</p>

The University’s fourth President, Edgar Shannon,  initiated coeducation and racial integration at the University and has been recognized for his strong opposition to the Vietnam War and his support for student activism. 

After nearly five years of administrative deliberation, Alderman Library has been renamed after the University’s fourth President, Edgar Shannon, a move that has received mixed responses from students and community members. The change follows increases in student activism on Grounds in favor of the change, as well as some resistance from students, alumni and community members.

The Board of Visitors’ Building and Grounds Committee voted Feb. 29 to rename the Library and the full Board convened the following day to approve and finalize the renaming.

Elyse Girard, the Library’s executive director of communications, said that the reactions she has seen have been largely positive, and that the name change is not a significant inconvenience. 

“So far, it's honestly been really well received. The feedback that I've gotten from alums and community members has been really positive,” Girard said. “There are some plaques for Alderman that were original to the building and that are staying and then some for Shannon will also go up. But [the name change] didn't add additional cost or really any additional trouble for us.” 

Calls for the renaming began even before the library closed in 2020 for renovations. Community members have voiced concerns surrounding Edwin Alderman’s legacy as a supporter of eugenics — a pseudoscience which attempts to scientifically ground the genetic superiority of white Europeans over non-white people. 

In response to these concerns, U.Va. Libraries started an internal library research naming group December 2019. John Unsworth, University librarian and dean of libraries, submitted a request June 2021 to the Naming and Memorials Committee for consideration of a name change. The name alternative ultimately brought to the Board would honor Shannon, who initiated coeducation and racial integration at the University. Shannon was also recognized for his strong opposition to the Vietnam War and his support for student activism.

Beyond this formal administrative process, the library’s name change has been a heavily debated issue. The University’s Student Council voted Feb. 20 to support the name change, passing a resolution in support of an open letter calling for the Board of Visitors to approve the renaming to Shannon Library. Tichara Robertson, Student Council president and fourth-year College student, shared her reaction to the name change.

“Personally, I'm glad that the University and the Board of Visitors made this decision to change the name,” Robertson said. “I think it's a step towards progress in terms of who the University chooses to spotlight and how it contends with its history … We were satisfied that the Board of Visitors listened to the opinion of students, and that it was critical in thinking about who U.Va. wants to uplift in this day and age.” 

James Bacon, executive director of the Jefferson Council — a University alumni group “dedicated to preserving Thomas Jefferson’s legacy” — explained his opposition to the decision. Bacon expressed his reservations about the application of today’s standards to historical figures. 

“Our biggest concern is that this is an exercise in presentism — the act of taking current values and political preoccupations and projecting them backwards onto historical figures using an absolute scale, in which today is good and back then was bad,” Bacon said. “And anybody who doesn't meet up to every criteria is thereby canceled — without regard to weighing their contributions versus any reservations we might have about them.”

The renaming of Alderman follows a wave of universities reevaluating the historical figures whose names are honored on their campuses. This includes the University — in 2016, Jordan Hall was renamed to Pinn Hall in light of former Dean Harvey Jordan’s support for eugenics. 

Third-year College student May Manning also voiced her disagreement with the name change, and noted that she doesn’t believe it will have an effect on the University or change how students reference the library. 

“I think history is unflinching, and it should not be changed or rewritten, no matter how ugly it was. We don't have to rectify that by renaming the building. What we do have to do is educate people as to why that building was named after that person,” said Manning. “I think the best way to fight things like this is to learn and understand it and instead of trying to avoid it or bury it.” 

Second-year Engineering student Dan O’Connor voiced a different opinion — he said that he supports the renaming and feels that the general student consensus is in support of the change. 

“I think the renaming of Alderman library is a very good thing. I don't see any reason as to why not to rename it,” O’Connor said. “I haven’t met any other students who disagreed with it. I think this is a very easy decision to have made to move forward and I'm glad it was made.” 

Girard noted that in moving forward, community members should take the opportunity to learn more about Shannon’s legacy. 

“I know we're kind of talking about Alderman versus Shannon and the impact of it,” Girard said. “But it’s nice to think about Shannon as an individual — [the library has] a ton of his papers and all different kinds of things, so if people are interested in Shannon as a person, they could certainly come to the library and discover and learn more about him.” 

As the April 4 grand opening approaches, Girard said the library will continue to work on signage and website changes to include the new name, but operations and logistics for the opening will remain the same. 

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