Given By President Thomas: Legacies of Power in the Library Collection

Bookplate from PR85 .P22 1894

Bookplate, PR85 .P22 1894, Canaday Library, Bryn Mawr College.

My project began while I was making the Bryn Mawr history survey last month. I work at Carpenter Library and (until recently) Canaday, and I spent a lot of time looking at the books in the library collection. As you probably know, we have a lot of older books dating to the college’s founding and before, and many of these books have elaborate bookplates detailing the history of their donation. These books and their bookplates said a lot about the college’s history, and the types of things that have been memorialized.

My interest was especially sparked by the earliest books to enter the Bryn Mawr Collection, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Given the current campaign to rename Thomas Hall, I thought it was important to address the other ways that M. Carey Thomas is memorialized at Bryn Mawr and the many ways her legacy continues to shape the school. Although we may never open either of the two books I’m showing here (or the hundreds like them), her legacy is absolutely everywhere, from bookplates to the one above, books formerly in the Deanery library, to books like the one below that were procured by Mary Garrett. This school clearly needs to have a conversation about her and the oppression on which Bryn Mawr was built, and I want to make these books a part of that conversation.

Bookplate from PA3952 .S3 V.1 in Canaday

Bookplate, PA3952 .S3 V.1, Carpenter Library, Bryn Mawr College.

These books and bookplates present a lot of complexities about campus memory and public history. They are in a strange place between public and private — closed within books that are exclusively accessible to people within the college community, but also meant to be handled by generations of students.

I wanted to focus on bringing them into the open, not just to show previously hidden aspects of our history but also complicate our relationships with objects that we take for granted.

As was obvious from last class, I care a lot about the materiality of objects and their historical importance, and I think these books have a lot of value because they reveal something about the way that power structures and painful histories (including M. Carey Thomas’s legacy of white supremacy) shape the types objects that we interact with everyday. None of this presents a solution, or even addresses what my project would be. Really I just want a space to have these types of conversations, and realize the ways that money and power impact things like book buying policies.

A few years ago Haverford did an exhibit about the early library collection (link) and I’m thinking along those lines, but I want something that will more directly address Thomas’s legacy and the founding of the college as it relates to books and the library.

Not Just History

Like most people who have posted about Mining the Museum, I was very excited and interested in Fred Wilson’s project. I especially liked it in comparison to projects like Erin’s Philadelphia History Truck, which was also on the line between history and artistic expression. As all the articles noted, Fred Wilson’s exhibit was at the Contemporary museum, and even though its artifacts are largely historical, the project was as much an art installation as it was a history exhibit. As Lisa Corrin describes, the Contemporary’s mission is to “explore the connections between the art of our time and the world we live in” (302). Even though the exhibit is about history, it’s also about the present, and its analysis rejects a historical timeline in favor of a larger series of themes that often transcend usual categories.

 Corrin also describes how “the exhibition was designed to address problems we felt were of concern to many museums, regardless of their discipline” (303). I loved this sentiment, because I felt like it broke down many of the barriers usually constructed between art and history. In the end, Mining the Museum is a commentary about museums and society more broadly, and can incorporate ideas and problems from a wide variety of disciplines. Even the questions asked of visitors (What do you see? What do you think?, etc.) apply beyond just history. Although we’re in a History class, I think it’s really valuable to think about the ways that this exhibit resists being confined to just that one discipline and just one way of thinking about the past and the present.

Narratives and Maps

One of the things that interested me the most while visiting Erin’s History Truck studio last week was the large map of Kensington that marked where residents’ first memory of the neighborhood took place. The idea of turning a map into sometime so alive with personal memory was really exiting for me, and made the physical space of the neighborhood seem much more alive than a traditional map might. I also appreciated the way that the map included narratives by allowing participants to tell stories about their memories of the spaces.

Narratives of spaces are also employed in Jen Gieseking’s analysis of college space in “Reconstructing Women: scaled portrayals of privilege and gender norms on campus”. Gieseking uses a similar way of thinking about people and space, although she transforms the personal stories into a larger conclusion about the way that people interact with space. Although the History Truck also deals with this interaction of people and space, Gieseking’s article addresses more directly the way that people are shaped by spaces. Although Gieseking uses direct quotes from individuals, the experiences and reactions she records are meant to be collective, and betray something about a universal experience for most Mount Holyoke students.

Both the History Truck and Gieseking’s article ask individuals personal questions about space, but the way they deal with the nature of personal narratives of space is vastly different. Although the History Truck is looking for sometime collective that many people can claim as their own, it also speaks about the specific details and uniqueness of each person’s experiences within the same larger spaces. Although Gieseking is aware of the unique situations of particular MHC students (like the quote 283 from a student who considered herself alienated by her class), she still uses their experience to make a larger point with a more universal conclusion. I realize that Gieseking had a very different purpose in writing about space that a project like the History Truck, but I still wished that Gieseking’s article had brought in the types of individual overlapping experiences that I loved about the map in Erin’s studio. Although they both serve as interesting examples of bringing together individual narratives about space, I am partial to Erin’s map that shows how varied and unique each person’s experience is.

By the public, not just for the public

I was incredibly struck by Dolores Hayden’s descriptions of revolutionary changes in attitudes to public art, and the way it reflects the potential of future public history projects (including the History Truck). Hayden describes how previously public art has been defined as “art that is accessible to the public” but that now it is being recategorized as “art that has public content” (Hayden, 67-68). I appreciated Hayden describing these two sometimes conflicting meanings of the word public, especially because its a word we use so often in this class but haven’t had the chance to really challenge yet. Even though Hayden is specifically describing art, her point is much broader about combining accessibility with representation. Public art and history aren’t just for the public, they’re about the public.

I’ve been thinking about public art a lot lately because of a discussion that I’ve seen online about the incredibly racist paintings in the Minnesota state capitol back home (, for those of you who want to know more. there’s also an online petition that has very few signatures but was written by a great organization that should get a lot more love). Until reading Hayden, I never really broke down the idea of public art in general, and her terminology and definitions are helpful for me in thinking about the various ways that the current public art in the capitol is not serving the people it’s meant to be for. Right now the art in the MN state capitol is accessible to the public, but the white supremacist content means that art isn’t really public.

The Philadelphia Public History Truck is attempting to be both accessible to the public and with public content. More than that, it is also trying to be publicly created and curated, going a step beyond even Hayden’s definition to be by the public, not just for and about them.  This seems very ambitious, but it’s also a exciting way to move forward. Can we take this attitude into discussions of things like the art in the MN state capitol? When replacing the current paintings, can the new works go even further and be not just accessible to the public, about the public, but also by the public?

Investing in the Archives

The “Announcing ASAP” post from Princeton brings to mind many things we’ve talked about over the course of the semester, both in relation to archives and alternative histories but also just about mass involvement in the creation of history.

I was particularly surprised by how much Jarrett Drake’s announcement reminded me of Filene’s piece on “outsider history-makers” from the second week of class. Like Filene, Drake is arguing for more passionate connections between the public and more traditional methods of history-making. His way of speaking about the project seemed to ask for a similar kind of investment on the part of people outside of traditional history creation and/or curation fields. This also relates to our own discussions of the Bryn Mawr archives, and the way that alums often don’t see value in their own collections. Drake’s way of speaking about student lives and campus activism really brought out how necessary it is for people to care about the creation of history, and the impact that it can have when we can collect stories from diverse places.

Drake specifically asks students to invest in the archives, which I think is a fascinating way of thinking about this entire process. As is clear from Roger’s book, having archival records of activism is absolutely necessary in order to be able to talk about movements that questioned the system and traditional narratives. It is an investment to put time and energy into documenting the present, and we can absolutely see the way that that investment can pay off in the long (and even the short) run.

Legacies of Slavery

Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy brought up many important points about the history of race in America and the legacy of race and slavery in institutions of higher education. Even more broadly, I thought Wilder did a good job of showing that the history of slavery isn’t tangential to American history as a whole, but an integral part of story.

One of the parts of Wilder’s book that stuck out to me was his discussion of the Philipse family, which detailed the economic and social impact of the slave trade in Colonial America. I was very familiar with this particular story because as a child I volunteered at Philipsburg Manor, the Philpse’s plantation in the Hudson Valley. I’ve never really thought that much about that experience, but it was my first introduction to public history and a place is that is trying to grapple with its legacy of slavery and violence. While I was there the site hired a new staff member to who was trying to change the main focus away from tenant farmers to slaves, although still acknowledging the role of both. Before this change, the site had mainly focused on tenant farmers, with an extreme bias toward the history of lower class white people (and about 90% of the staff and volunteers were white).  I don’t think the site has flawless presentation, but I searched a little on their website and they’ve clearly worked to highlight slavery as a primary part of their history: “At Philipsburg Manor, the story presented touches on three important subjects: slavery, commerce, and cultural diversity — concepts as relevant today as in the eighteenth century.” — Philipsburg Manor website,

I haven’t been back in 10 years, but it seems like they are trying to bring the legacies of slavery into the present. Although institutions like Philipsburg are different from the colleges and universities whose legacies Wilder describes, it’s interesting to see how the site is trying to present slavery as a contemporary subject, and not relegated it the past.

Inclusion and Tradition

Whenever I think about Bryn Mawr’s institutional memory, especially as it relates to trans inclusion, I’m reminded of a series of conversations I had with an alum who I shadowed as part of an externship during winter break my sophomore year. She graduated in 1997, 20 years before I will graduate, and it was fascinating to hear about her experiences and try to communicate about our similar but also incredibly different visions of Bryn Mawr.

My externship was before Bryn Mawr changed its admissions policy about accepting trans students, but trans inclusion was a major topic of conversation for current students and alums. Although the alum I talked to was supportive of Bryn Mawr accepting trans women, she was much more confused about trans men and non-binary students and their place at Bryn Mawr. I struggled trying to explain my hope of Bryn Mawr embracing greater inclusivity across the board to someone with a more narrow idea of what a women’s college should be. Although that kind of resistance exists within the current student body as well, I got the feeling that my Class of ’17 conception of what Bryn Mawr is and what it should be was vastly different from her Class of ’97 one. We shared so many of the same memories of Bryn Mawr, from our identical red lanterns to our favorite Art History professors, but we had different basic definitions of who should have access to Bryn Mawr.

On an unrelated note, I’ve been thinking a lot about May Day gifts and passing down Bryn Mawr’s heritage. What does it mean for documenting Bryn Mawr history that many of us personally have pieces of Bryn Mawr life that have been handed down for years? I have a few items that were originally from the 90s and early 00s, which I never thought of as very valuable. I only recently remembered them because I have some hell schedules from 10-15 years ago that are interesting to consider at as the school reevaluates the tradition. Since there are no records of May Day gifts, we have no idea of what artifacts are being passed down. I’m sure they would form a very different story about Bryn Mawr history than the one found in the official college archives.

“Bryn Mawr: Hotbed of Radicalism”

When watching The Women of Summer, one of the most surprising things was learning about how Bryn Mawr was on the forefront of a progressive social movement. I was especially shocked when one alum of the Summer School mentioned how a Philadelphia newspaper had claimed Bryn Mawr was a “hotbed of radicalism”, since that isn’t how I perceive Bryn Mawr’s reputation at all.

I googled Bryn Mawr and “hotbed of radicalism” to see if I could quickly find the article that the women had referenced. I didn’t find that one in particular, but I did find this article from the Evening Independent of St. Petersburg, Florida from May 17th, 1923, which I’ve screen capped below:

Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL) May 17 1923

(found on Google News, who made it incredibly easy to find a relevant newspaper headline from 93 years ago online.)

The entire story of the the Summer School for Women Workers in Industry was fascinating, but I was especially interested in the way that it was understood with its political context. The Evening Independent article doesn’t specifically mention the Summer School, but it does hint at Bryn Mawr’s progressive reputation in the 20s and fears about union organizing. the claim of a direct connection between Bryn Mawr and Soviet Russia through the Trade Union League seems ridiculous, but it’s fascinating to think that the Summer School was radical enough to warrant that type of publicity.

Both the quote from Women of Summer and this article mention how Bryn Mawr publicly denied allegations of radicalism. The woman interviewed in the film mentioned how the school administration was angry about the “hotbed of radicalism” headline, and this article quotes a response from Marion Davis Park. Although Bryn Mawr may have been on the cutting edge, their public responses also show the way that the school was still invested in maintaining a reputation that was not tied to radicalism. The school’s response is another integral part of the story, which speaks to the various voices within the school as well as the potential difference between private goals and public image.

Rethinking Archival Silences

Rodney G.S. Carter’s piece Of Things Said and Unsaid brought to mind a discussion I had had in an art history class this week about how our analysis of the past is shaped by our access to written materials. We were discussing the potential meanings behind a medieval painting of Mary, and how the image may have held a myriad of meanings but the only ones we could properly analyze were those that were supported by theological texts of the era. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of contemporaries were illiterate and more likely to learn their faith through images, not theological texts. The painting may have been read in many different ways, but the only one we know about is the one that comes from an institutional perspective. Although archives are made up of both words and images, I can’t help but feel that the strong preference for archiving the written word is already privileging certain people and types of material culture over others.

Carter ends his piece with a call to action for further archiving, especially on the part of marginalized groups. But I wonder if the problem runs deeper than that. Yes, literacy rates in much of the world are higher than they used to be. But we still can’t account for all the things left unsaid and unwritten. Even Springer in Radical Archives is looking at groups who created material that is in the right form to be archived using traditional methods. We can’t go back in time and ask medieval peasants what they thought of a painting in a church, but we also aren’t going out and collecting the thoughts of every person who sees a work of art now and putting it in an archive. It’s easy to look at newspaper archives and find art critics writing about exhibits, but much harder to find a record of someone who wandered in off the street, or someone who couldn’t afford to pay the admission price in the first place. Nobody asks what people without power or influence thought, so nobody writes it down, and consequently there’s nothing to archive. Our way of thinking about recording information still prioritizes certain types of material, especially things that have been written and published. Carter suggests that we “attempt to understand the contexts that gave rise to the silences” (230), but he uses the past tense as if we aren’t still creating silences and leaving blank spaces in the history we record today.

More on Outsider History-Makers

In the first chapter of Silencing the Past, I felt that Trouillot made a compelling point about why so-called “outsider history-makers” are important, but from a very different perspective than that of Filene. Trouillet write that “the fact that history is also produced outside of academia has largely been ignored in theories of history”(21). He is referencing the same type of history-makers that Filene writes about, historians who come from outside the confines of academia. But he sees them as shaping history in a very different ways. Unlike Filene, he is not concerned with their accuracy or their reliability, but on the way that they influence the winder culture and even the production of academic history. They don’t just produce historical narratives, they create the history itself and are both historical actors and narrators, categories which he says always overlap (22). Because we often receive our understanding of the past from these outsider voices, they fundamentally influence our understanding of the past and even shape our present.  His outsider history-makers aren’t outsiders at all, but part of a much larger system that produces history at all levels, both within and outside of academia.

Trouillot doesn’t tell us why outsider history-makers are necessary in the same way that Filene does, but he does tell us to stop ignoring them. He also seems much less concerned with the professionalism of the discipline, perhaps because he acknowledges that even academic peer-reviewed history is not without major flaws. He shows the complexity of the entire process of history-making, and consequently breaks down the barriers between insiders and outsiders. This all can relate to campus memory–we are the outsider history-makers at Bryn Mawr every day. Why do we tell the stories we do about Bryn Mawr history, and how does relating these stories make us into historical actors? And as historical narrators, we can’t deny that our entire perception of campus history is based on the stories we’ve already been told. Outsider narratives shape our view of history, and consequently they are fundamentally important to the study of history as a whole.