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Engaging in Toponymic Justice: Proactively Naming The Nishihara Family Classroom

by Natalia Fernández, Jane Nichols, and Diana Park

In Brief 

Conversations about the memorial landscape, as well as commemorative and toponymic naming practices, have exploded across universities in the United States in the past few years. Toponyms, or place names, which situate a location in its historical, social, and demographic context, are reconsidered during efforts to establish toponymic justice, a re-naming lens arising out of critical place-name studies (Rose-Redwood, Alderman, and Azaryahu 2010, p. 453, 455). We outline how toponymic justice can be enacted in library spaces by chronicling the naming of a library classroom at The Oregon State University Valley Library. In contrast to common financial donation naming practices, we provide an alternative of a namesake that is centered on shared values. The work of social justice is not achieved by a single event, naming, or policy change. Similarly, we realize that a single instance of toponymic justice is just the beginning, and we reflect on how to make our spaces more equitable and inclusive for all students. 


The names of our spaces matter. Academic libraries seek to welcome all learners, but are our claims of being open to all realistic when our physical libraries do not reflect the varied experiences and aspirations of our students? By looking at who our buildings and spaces are named after, and what it means when they are unnamed, we consider what we can learn about our institutions and academic libraries’ places in academe—a hub that is sometimes reflective of slow-changing histories and canons, but with the potential for generating new ideas and opening knowledge at the same time. (Tewell et al 2021, p. 180)

A space naming opportunity arose during a 2018-2019 renovation of a classroom within The Oregon State University (OSU) Valley Library. In this case study we share the process of naming a library classroom after a namesake who places student equity at the center of their work, a value shared by the OSU Libraries & Press (OSULP). Inspired by literature, in particular Tewell, Tobar, Long, Castrillo, and Ettarh’s paper, regarding the significance of named spaces and their namesakes’ histories, OSULP decided that the naming would not come with a funding requirement; this equitable practice allowed the naming of the space without that restriction. We describe our process as ‘proactive naming’, in contrast to a reactive one. We consider proactive naming to occur when a name is chosen based on values, an inspiring person, or, by finding another name meaningful to constituents, regardless of funding and without pressure. We situate our approach within the context of toponymic justice, which arises out of critical place-name studies (Rose-Redwood, Alderman, and Azaryahu 2010, p. 453, 455) and seeks justice and reform with commemorative naming practices, alongside interrogation of those practices (Alderman and Rose-Redwood 2020, p. 4, 13).

We outline our naming process, which was led by a group of library faculty with the support of our Dean, and which took place during the 2022-2023 academic year. We reflect on issues we considered regarding our process and conclude with ideas for future plans for the space. By sharing our experience with a proactive naming practice that reflects our current values, our article expands the conversation about ways to engage in toponymic justice.

Literature Review

Named spaces in U.S. higher education institutions confer messages, overt or implicit, about who these institutions do and do not value on their campuses. Higher education, as part of the broader society, is not immune from the recently reinvigorated, social, cultural, and political memorial justice movement focused on the removal of confederate symbols of white supremacy (monuments, statues, flags, building names). Connecting to the Black Lives Movement in its calls for reparative institutional and systemic racial justice, memorial justice, and memory work re-imagine landscapes by making visible “contributions, experiences, memories, and struggles of marginalized peoples” (Brasher 2023, p. 249). 

In recent years, students and others have advocated for “memorial and toponymic justice” when reconsidering historical names and naming practices (Alderman and Rose-Redwood 2020, p. 4). Toponyms, commonly known as place names, go beyond identifying a place’s geographical location—assisting people with their wayfinding—by situating a place in its historical, social, and demographic context (Britannica n.d.). Toponymic justice arises out of critical place-name studies which advocates for the work of (re)naming (Brasher 2023, p. 243), story-telling about a given place from multiple perspectives, and confers “an affective sense of belonging in the present” (p.243). When we undertake place naming from a critical lens, we are engaging in ‘memory-work’ (p. 246), and doing so may bring to light problematic history such as the appropriation of land unceded by Indigenous peoples and the use of labor by enslaved people to build universities and their campuses across the United States (p. 246). Recent efforts at place naming endeavor to repair “entrenched structural harm” (p. 249) and create “opportunities for marginalized people to lay claim to a sense of belonging on the memorial landscape” (p. 246). Brasher reminds us that honorific naming efforts have their limitations when unconnected to “material demands” for reparative social, economic, and political change (p. 249). A singular honoring of a BIPOC individual, akin to statements and calls for justice, is an empty gesture without additional structural changes to policies, practices, and processes that are purposely created to be anti-racist. 

Educator-advocates for toponymic justice have had success in effecting change in various ways. Naming justice can shape landscape policy-making (Brasher, Alderman, and Inwood 2017) and inspire reparative collaborations between academic institutions and tribal communities (Brown 2023, p. 176), both approaches to systemic change. Educators have adopted pedagogical approaches to engage students in place-naming justice activities (Alderman and Rose-Redwood 2020) while student advocates modeled the renaming of a student medical society, noting challenges they encountered (Manning, Ingram, and Crenner 2023).

Academic libraries have adopted naming practices similar to their parent institutions. Bonnand and Donahue’s research found that library buildings and their internal spaces were named to honor the institution’s president, a library director, or a donor and suggested that where donors have supported a building or space, they “like to see” their name on display (2010, p. 231). While a newly named building or space helped spur additional supporters (p. 231) it was not uncommon for named internal spaces to become ignored or overlooked over time and for students to use the word ‘library’ as a short-hand to signify a space inside the library (p.232). Despite this, a named internal library space signaled to students its purpose (p. 231), and an unanticipated benefit was that as library users interacted with the newly named library or space (p.233), their conception of what constituted a library expanded.

Crosetto and Atwood documented multiple, emerging approaches to library naming practices (2012). At that point about half of the libraries they examined were unnamed; the remaining were named for a person (an alum, a donor, a professor), a discipline (Education, Biology, etc.), or a colloquial moniker such as ‘the library’ (Crosetto and Atwood 2012, p. 90, 93-95) the latter reflecting a “passive” naming strategy. They remarked on the issue of donors believing their donation meant the library would retain their name in perpetuity, a practice no longer in place (p. 98). 

Since Crosetto and Atwood’s study, several libraries have evaluated their place names. For example, Louisiana State University (LSU) and other libraries have renamed their libraries or removed problematic iconography in response to constituent protests (Peet 2020). LSU students protested the name of their campus library because of that person’s documented pro-segregation views and advocated a re-naming. ((This sentence was corrected post-publication. The original sentence noted that the LSU students protested the name of their campus library because of the namesake’s direct ties to slavery. We have corrected this to indicate that it was because of the person’s documented pro-segregation views.)) After an active and concerted protest, the LSU administration conceded that a name change was needed. However, instead of proactively naming the library for another person or finding another name meaningful to students and other constituents, they chose to name the library for its function: library, noting that the library was slated to have a new building built pending funding (Peet 2020), which appears to be in process (Wilkins 2023). 

Fernández, in 2020, found “a lack of in-depth case studies on building and place name evaluation processes, especially from an archivist’s perspective” (p. 5). She outlined roles that library workers, particularly archivists and special collections librarians, can play in a campus building renaming project and shared lessons learned from her experience with Oregon State University’s place name evaluation process. Affirming the value of including archivists and other library workers in toponymic justice activities, she asserted that  “we also have the opportunity to engage our communities in productive and transformative discourses” (Fernández 2020, p. 1).

Tewell, Tobar, Long, Castrillo, and Ettarh’s multiple-case study asked libraries and library workers to reflect on the names of their libraries and library spaces and the values they “implicitly endorse” (2021, p. 179). Their analyses of place names through the “lenses of whiteness and class” confirmed Crosetto and Atwood’s 2012 findings, that many buildings are still named after the parent institution’s president, a well-known professor, or a donor. Tewell et. al. found that the “names are so commonplace that it can be easy to ignore” their origins and subsequent impact (p. 179). They argued that naming “access is still pay to play” (p. 186) and that this approach is a “white man’s vanity project” (p. 186).  The prevalence of “pay to play” represents the privilege of access and meritocratic ideas long-associated with whiteness and white-males (p. 186). When we evaluate building and space names from the lenses of systemic and institutional oppression, we uncover or recover histories “of achievement, displacement, learning, and privilege” (p. 187). Making these histories visible is a path for libraries and librarians who want to proactively advance toponymic justice based on the “values of equity [and] equal access” (p. 186).

From the literature, we learned that toponymic justice is a rich lens for our profession, our libraries and us, as library workers, to study and act from, as it opens our thinking and research beyond previous studies that focused on marking libraries’ naming practices. Recent literature focuses on “commemorative place (re)naming”, critical place-name studies, and toponymic justice; rich, theoretical lenses that inform and guide naming practices (Brasher 2023, p. 243). The literature also shows a range of how individual library and cultural heritage workers–including archivists–approached place naming work whether it was for their library or their parent institution. 

We recognize that libraries of all types (academic, public, school, etc.) may be engaging in justice-based place-name work without it being represented in publication. Our profession would benefit from future publications discussing how libraries and library workers apply toponymic justice to their unique contexts. We note that our context as a predominately white institution is distinct from Hispanic Serving Institutions, Historically Black Colleges or Universities, or Tribal Colleges or Universities, or minority-majority institutions where place names may reflect BIPOC communities. Publications depicting a range of realities would contribute to the larger goal of breaking down white supremacy and moving toward social justice in library work.

A Brief History of Oregon and Oregon State University 

The state of Oregon’s settler-colonial history is rooted in white supremacy and slavery, with a history of exclusion and racism against people of color in the 19th and 20th centuries that continues into the present day. ((In Gregory Nokes, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2013) Nokes explains how white southerners, many of whom were anti-slavery for economic reasons were also deeply racist, and some who owned slaves were the ones who came westward to the Oregon territory during the 19th century. Histories include but are by no means limited to, Black exclusion laws written into the state’s constitution in the 1850s, the segregation and mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s, the discrimination endured by the Mexican workers who came to Oregon as part of Bracero Program during the 1940s, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the enforcement of Sundown Laws in various towns, and the redlining of neighborhoods to keep cities segregated. Several of these histories are available via The Oregon Encyclopedia.)) The main campus of Oregon State University, originally established as Corvallis College, is located within the traditional homelands of the Marys River or Ampinefu Band of Kalapuya. ((Following the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855 (Kalapuya etc. Treaty), Kalapuya people were forcibly removed to reservations in Western Oregon. Today, living descendants of these people are a part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians. While the main campus is located in Corvallis, Oregon, a small college town in the Willamette Valley. Additional campuses are located on the coast as well as in central Oregon.)) In 1868, the Oregon legislature designated it the state’s land grant institution; as part of the High Country News Land-Grab Universities investigation, they included OSU. ((Oregon State University, HighCountry News Land-Grab Universities. For more detailed information pertaining to OSU’s history see the OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center OSU Chronological History Exhibit as well as William G. Robbins, The People’s School: A History of Oregon State University (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017).)) The university is a predominately white institution with 29% of students identifying as students of color, in a predominantly white state with 61% of the population identifying as “white-alone”. ((OSU Enrollment Summary,  Winter 2023 and Oregon Census 2020)) For decades, OSU students of color have protested  against institutional racism, as well as a campus and local area climate of discrimination and racism they continue to face today. ((In 2017, OSU student Lyndi-Rae Petty wrote her honors thesis “The Never-Ending Story: An Analysis of Student Activism at Oregon State University” (undergraduate honors thesis, Oregon State University, 2017) in which she examines the history of student activism at OSU relating to campus racism and race relations and the administrative response to student demands.)) The university’s administration has responded in several ways to address the needs of students of color including the establishment of offices and programs as well as efforts to reconcile and come to terms with its racist past and mistreatment of people of color. For example, in 2008, OSU offered honorary degrees to the Japanese American students forced to leave their studies during World War II; in the mid-2010s the university raised funds to build new campus cultural resource centers; and in 2015, the university established the Office of Institutional Diversity which reports directly to the President. ((More information on these stories and others can be found on the website, Untold Stories: Histories of Students of Color.))

OSU’s reconciliation efforts have included building names, both in the naming of new buildings as well as renaming buildings with namesakes that have anti-racist histories. In 2002 the university named a residence hall, Halsell Hall, to honor Carrie Beatrice Halsell Ward, one of OSU’s first known African American graduates, and in 2014, the university hosted the dedication ceremony for another new residence hall, Tebeau Hall, named after William Tebeau, one of the first known male African American graduates. ((Halsell and Tebeaue were “firsts” at the time the residence halls were named. During the 2019-2020 academic year, a research project uncovered that an OSU student named Palmer Patton may be the first known African-American graduate of OSU.)) It is particularly symbolic that the buildings named were residence halls when both Halsell and Tebeau, who graduated in the 1920s and 1940s, were not allowed to live on campus due to the residence hall practices of the time which excluded them. Until the mid-2010s renaming buildings was quite common on the Corvallis campus, however, de-naming a building due to a namesake’s problematic historical legacy had never been done. ((The renaming of buildings at OSU dates back to at least the early 20th century. Renaming is typically done when a building changes function, for example, Furman Hall changed from Agriculture Hall to Science Hall in 1909, as well as to honor someone, for example, in 1920 what is now Kearney Hall changed from Mechanical Hall to Apperson Hall.)) In 2016, in response to concerns raised by OSU community members, the Architectural Naming Committee and the Office of Institutional Diversity called for the formation of an advisory committee to help the university determine how to appropriately acknowledge and reconcile the legacy of university buildings named after individuals who held and acted on racist and exclusionary beliefs. After a two-year process, including historical research and community engagement, the President decided to de-name three buildings on OSU’s Corvallis campus. ((The three buildings de-named were Avery Lodge, Benton Hall, and Benton Annex. For more information, see the OSU Building and Place Names website along with the article “When Building Namesakes Have Ties to White Supremacy: A Case Study of Oregon State University’s Building Names Evaluation Process.”)) In 2018, the community engaged in a renaming process, and the OSU President approved and announced the renaming of three buildings. Champinefu Lodge honors the local Indigenous community, the Kalapuya tribe; Community Hall reflects the contributions of local residents in establishing the university; and the Hattie Redmond Women and Gender Center celebrates Hattie Redmond, a leader in the struggle for women’s suffrage in Oregon in the early 20th century and a Black pioneer in the state credited with laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement in Oregon in the mid-twentieth century.

OSU and OSU Libraries & Press Building and Spaces Naming Practices 

OSU’s policies and standards regarding Architectural and Academic Unit Naming were most recently revised in November 2022. ((OSU Architectural and Academic Unit Naming Policy)) The university’s Architectural Naming Committee may recommend to the President to name or rename a building, property, or major academic unit of the university, however, the President retains the ultimate authority to name, rename, or remove the name from university buildings and property. The guidelines for proposing or selecting a name are broad, referencing the need to conduct research to determine whether the proposed name will complement the university and its campuses or facilities and if the name supports the university’s mission and values as well as the values of the university community. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is an entire section called “Donor Naming” which states “Significant private gifts to support the university offer an opportunity for appropriate recognition of donors. Part of this recognition may include the naming of buildings or components, property, or major academic units” a practice in line with the tradition of choosing to honor financial donors with named spaces. Most recently, as part of the university’s current capital campaign, two new major facilities, the Patricia Valian Reser Center for the Creative Arts and the Jen-Hsun and Lori Huang Collaborative Innovation Complex, are named after financial donors who are also OSU alum. ((OSU Fundraising Campaign website)) However, the university’s naming practices vary beyond the recognition of financial donors. There are university buildings named after a building’s function, a geographic location, or a notable alum or faculty/staff member who was not a financial donor; and, as noted in the section above, names were selected as part of community reconciliation efforts. ((Though still a work in progress at the time of publication, the OSU Buildings Histories in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center LibGuide includes a list of the university’s building names, including the histories of the buildings’ namesakes.)) The Valley Library, located on the Corvallis campus, was expanded and renamed The Valley Library for Wayne and Gladys Valley and their Valley Foundation in 1996, which donated funds to support a building renovation and expansion. ((For a timeline history of the OSU Libraries and Press see the “History of OSU Libraries and Press.”))  

At this time, The Valley Library does not have a spaces naming policy or set of guidelines, but the reasons for naming library spaces mirror the university’s practices. The majority of spaces, such as rooms and foyers and designated learning spaces, are named after financial donors; sometimes but not always, the donor has a connection to the university. As part of the 1996-1999 $40 million expansion and remodel of the library, many spaces were named after financial donors. Spaces were named based on the donation amount, and while smaller financial contributions did not equate to named spaces, named chairs and bricks on the quad were options to honor community members. The main lobby includes glass panels listing the names of donors, including students. While most spaces are named, it is rare for the spaces to include any context or history of the namesake. There are recent exceptions, however; the main floor learning commons does include a couple of plaques mounted on walls that give some donor information, but this is not common practice across the library. The library administration tracks financial donors for their records, but that information is not easily accessible or in some cases not publicly accessible. ((There are two archival collections pertaining to OSU Libraries and Press including Friends of the Library Records, 1934-1996 and Library Records, 1908-2002 that may include naming and namesake histories but that information is not separately documented for public access.)) The library’s building manager has expressed the desire to better document and make known space name information, but that work will be a significant endeavor and the library’s administration has not yet prioritized it.      

Case Study: The Nishihara Family Classroom Naming 

The History of the Physical Space 

At the time of The Valley Library’s late-1990s renovation, obtaining photocopies of print serials and other materials was an important step in student and faculty research, and a room on the main floor in the library dedicated to this activity proved beneficial to the campus and local communities for many years. However, over the years, the community’s needs changed, and using scanners to make digital copies became preferred. This created the opportunity to redesign the Printer and Copier Room. By the mid-2010s, based on classroom and space usage data from instruction librarians and students, there was a growing need to create more space for classroom teaching and for open student study. In the 2017-2018 academic year, library personnel in the teaching and building departments collaborated on a redesign to meet these needs. During the planning, various possible uses of the space arose, such as hosting presentations, meeting space for library departments and the Library Services Review Board student group, and outreach activities such as Crafternoons. In the first year of planning and implementing changes, librarians collected quotes for classroom technology, furniture, setting up hanging picture rails, and renovations. Possible funding options were discussed with the OSULP Dean and ultimately, in late 2017 the library applied for, and in April 2018 was awarded, an OSU Learning Innovation Grant for $10,000 towards classroom technology. The library also allocated up to $25,000 by drawing on unrestricted gift funds as well as funds designated for supplies. The renovation was guided by principles supporting student success, learning, and equity of access to resources at OSU and The Valley Library. ((The Renovation Committee included Rachel Burgess, Building Manager; Stefanie Buck and Jane Nichols, Teaching and Engagement Department; Dave Manela, Emerging Technology and Services Department; many others at OSU Libraries in the Library Experience and Access, Building Maintenance, and Administration Departments.)) To support the diverse anticipated uses of the space, we furnished the room with movable tables and chairs, whiteboards and monitors, a presentation station, and installed glass doors. ((More information about the room itself is available via the Nishihara Classroom website.)) With the changes implemented to make the space ready for teaching, the room became available for use in January 2019, but then, for the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the room was repurposed as a “degerming/quarantine” book station space. In the fall term of 2021, with the return to in-person work, the space began to be used for its intended purpose of meetings, workshops, training, presentations, instruction sessions, and student study. Then in the fall of 2022, the Library opened for use to library partners including the OSU Academic Success Center for the Undergrad Research & Writing Studio and Supplemental Instruction programs to support and expand these partnerships by meeting their space needs for student training and instruction. During this time period (2019-2022), the space was temporarily named the 2nd Floor West Classroom, with “West” reflecting its geographic location within the building.

Naming the Space 

Library employees always intended to name the West Classroom for someone or something meaningful to represent student success, learning, and equity of opportunity. During the 2018-2019 renovation time period, a teaching librarian suggested naming the classroom after Dr. Janet Nishihara, Director of the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP), a campus colleague and partner whose work embodies these values. In 2019, some preliminary informal discussions with librarians in the Teaching and Engagement Department and with the student Library Services Review Board were held to generate additional possible names; to get a feel for what direction would be welcomed; and to hear initial reactions to the suggested approach to naming the classroom. While these activities generated no additional names, the discussions showed general support for the approach to naming and provided ideas such as wanting to include contemporary artwork reflecting the aforementioned values. 

In the spring of 2022, the library administration charged a formal Renaming Exploration Group (referred to as “Group” for the remainder of the article) to serve as a focused, short-term group to facilitate the name-selection process. The library personnel who joined the group picked up where the 2019 conversations left off.  ((The Renaming Committee included Rachel Burgess, Building Manager; Jane Nichols and Kelly McElroy, Teaching and Engagement Department;  Chris Petersen, Special Collections and Archives Research Center; and student employee Robin Weis, Teaching and Engagement Department.)) The Group’s activities, which took place during the spring and summer of 2022, included conducting background research on Dr. Nishihara to learn more about her life, developing a proposal to present a rationale for the proposed name, and creating a draft budget to cover the costs of needed changes to signage and celebratory activities related to the name change. 

The Group wrote a room renaming proposal using criteria set by library administration, focusing on the values of equity and user experience. (( The full set of criteria as part of the Library Administration, Management, and Planning group included the values of User Experience, Equity, Anti-Racist Practice, Sustainability, and Staff Capacity.)) The proposal built on the idea of renaming the classroom after a current OSU employee by noting that requiring an accompanying financial donation from the individual could be a barrier and stated that not requiring a donation could be a way to foster equity, resisting typical naming practices associated with neoliberal values. The Group wanted to create an opportunity to rename the classroom without usage restrictions that sometimes come with financial gifts. The proposed name was to be inspired by an individual who placed student equity at the center of their work as that matched the intent of the classroom as it was conceived and its current use. 

In July 2022, the Renaming Exploration Group shared the proposal with the Dean of Libraries to rename the classroom to honor Dr. Nishihara. In the fall of 2022, the Dean approved the proposed name, and Dr. Nishihara graciously accepted it. When it came time to determine the exact name of the room, we considered several options. In the end, “The Nishihara Family Classroom” was selected as per Dr. Nishihara’s wishes to honor her family. Referencing her family honors her siblings and their connections to OSU as well as her own dedication to the university. Several Nishihara siblings worked at the OSU Libraries as student workers. ((For more information about Dr. Janet Nishihara, see her 2015 oral history interview.))   

Beyond Just Naming a Space 

After Dr. Nishihara formally accepted the renaming proposal, in November of 2022, the Dean of Libraries charged us, the authors of this article, to constitute the Room Renaming and Dedication Committee to manage the logistics of renaming the room. ((The Renaming and Naming Dedication Committee consisted of Natalia Fernández, a member of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center who had a pre-existing relationship with Dr. Nishihara via course collaborations and university committees; Diana Park, a Research & Learning (R&L) Department Librarian with ties to the OSU Asian & Pacific Cultural Center; Jane Nichols, another R&L Librarian who led the original renaming charge; Angela Haney, the Administrative Services Director; Rachel Burgess, the Building Manager; and Robin Weis, a graphic design student.)) We, the authors and members of the aforementioned Committee, used the library’s internal wiki space because it is viewable to all at OSULP to track our goals and work for the 2022-2023 academic year. Our goals were to rename both the physical and online references associated with the classroom’s previous name, create both physical and online spaces that give context and naming history for the space, and to host a dedication ceremony to honor the Nishihara family. The Dean approved all costs associated with these renaming activities. The funds came from the Dean’s “Delpha and Donald Campbell – Library Endowment”, an unrestricted library gift fund. ((The “unrestricted” fund meant that it could be used at the discretion of the Dean and use of the fund did not require us to name the space after the fund’s donors.))   

Design: creating physical and online spaces that give context and naming history

We worked with Dr. Nishihara to brainstorm possible designs for how the name would appear. ((As with any renaming of a space, various online references and physical signage had to be updated to reflect the new name and those changes needed to be communicated broadly. Before the renaming occurred, we informed library faculty and staff of the planned changes and timeline through email as well as verbally at an all-staff and faculty meeting. We then worked with the OSU Libraries building management and information technology colleagues to ensure library website pages, floor maps, the Outlook calendar room name, and references on the library’s internal wiki were renamed.)) To prepare for a meeting to share ideas and ask for feedback, the Committee walked through the library to view existing named spaces. More often than not, there was little to no information about namesakes, no context for who they were, or why the location was named after them. We did note that there was consistency in the text font and style used for the names. For The Nishihara Family Classroom, we wanted the naming of the space not to simply include her family’s name, but also to include imagery and language specific to them. The Building Manager suggested we add text to the glass doors as that would be the more prominent option as opposed to most spaces where the naming often is placed above a door or entryway. We proposed to Dr. Nishihara that the room include a bit of information about her and her family to make the space more personalized, and we asked if she could share a quotation that was meaningful to her for us to include as well. We used a Google doc to share our ideas, asked for feedback from our Dean, and confirmed the final language with Dr. Nishihara. In addition to the text, we brainstormed additional ideas to personalize the space to the Nishihara family. In a meeting with Dr. Nishihara, she shared that her family had a family crest, on her paternal side of the family, a red flower within a circle, that we could use. Dr. Nishihara and the Committee members loved the idea of including something deeply meaningful and culturally specific to the Nishihara family’s Japanese heritage. The company working on the glass application confirmed that they could recreate the crest and we decided to move forward with the plan to have the crest and name of the room on one door, and the text and quote on the other door (see images 1-3).

Entry to Nishihara Family Classroom.
Image 1. Nishihara Family Classroom, with sliding glass doors open. CC BY-NC-ND.
Crest of Nishihara family on glass door of classroom.
Image 2. Left door of the Nishihara Family Classroom, with the Nishihara family crest. CC BY-NC-ND.
Text on glass door of Nishihara Family Classroom.
Image 3. Right door of the Nishihara Family Classroom. The text on the door says, “This room is named in honor of the Nishihara Family for its dedication to student learning and success. Several Nishihara siblings worked at the OSU Libraries as student workers and graduated from OSU. Janet Nishihara went on to become the Director of the OSU Educational Opportunities Program. “After all of this is over, all that will have really mattered is how we treated each other…” a belief that inspires Janet Nishihara’s work”. CC BY-NC-ND.

One of the main distinctions of The Nishihara Family Classroom compared to other named spaces in the library is a dedicated website that gives more context about the naming history and the Nishihara family, specifically Dr. Janet Nishihara. We opted to create a Nishihara Family Classroom LibGuide; LibGuides are commonly used by OSULP librarians and enabled us to directly make edits and additions to the content. A link to the LibGuide is on the official classroom website within the library’s website. As of June 2023, the LibGuide includes photos of the classroom doors, information about the Nishihara family and more specific biographical information about Dr. Janet Nishihara, information and photos of the May 2023 dedication ceremony, and a brief history sharing how the classroom was named. We anticipate adding more content to this LibGuide as we make changes to the space.   

Promotion and Dedication: hosting a dedication ceremony to honor the Nishihara family

In consultation with Dr. Nishihara, we decided to host a dedication ceremony on May 12, 2023. We selected the month of May because it is Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. We connected with the OSU Asian & Pacific Cultural Center to be included in their Heritage Month calendar and to ensure we did not conflict with their planned activities. We also consulted with Dr. Nishihara to find a date that would work best for her family to attend, as well as with our Dean to ensure she would be present for the dedication to give her remarks. We received support from our library administration department in terms of staff time dedicated from the Administrative Services Director and a graphic design student. The Dean approved just over $1,000 of library funds to cover the costs of catering and equipment as well as some gifts for Dr. Nishihara; the main cost was staff time. For our event promotional effort, we invited the entire library via an Outlook calendar appointment, promoted the event via the library’s social media accounts, shared event details through the OSU Asian & Pacific Cultural Center and Association of Faculty for the Advancement of People of Color (AFAPC) listservs, and posted the event on the university’s daily digital newsletter, OSU Today. Based on Dr. Nishihara’s preference to keep the event simple and fun, we opted for a 2-hour event on a Friday afternoon, 3-5pm with a brief 15-minute dedication ceremony that started at 3:15pm. The ceremony included remarks by the Dean, a ribbon cutting, and a few words shared by Dr. Nishihara herself. We also presented Dr. Nishihara with a bouquet of flowers along with a framed copy of a watercolor painting of The Valley Library from the OSULP art collection (see image 4). We also printed small postcards of the painting to share with family members (see images 5-6). As a special touch, the graphic design student created paper bouquets using the family crest flower as centerpieces for the cocktail tables. In addition, we made special notes of paper for event attendees to write their congratulations; we collected these in a box to present to Dr. Nishihara at the end of the event. The event was open to all, and about 90 people, mostly OSU Faculty and Staff, were in attendance throughout the event, which wrapped up after about 1.5 hours. The attendees included members of the Nishihara family, some of whom had not been on the OSU campus since they were students. The Nishihara family used the event as an opportunity to engage in a family reunion dinner that evening. Attendees were so happy to celebrate Dr. Nishihara. We received written responses to the announcement through the OSU AFAPC listserv including, “Wow!!! This is so awesome Janet, congratulations to you and your family!” and “This is so very cool Janet! I loved learning about your family history and association with OSU and specifically the OSU Libraries…So glad this was shared with us so we can celebrate the Nishihara Family!” ((Various authors, “[AFAPC] Invitation to Nishihara Classroom dedication ceremony” email correspondence, May 4, 2023.)) In our conversations with members of the Nishihara family, they were very touched by the dedication, and they especially loved the inclusion and prominence of the family crest as a permanent component of the space. 

Dr. Janet Nishihara and her family.
Image 4. Dr. Janet Nishihara and her family at the May 2023 room dedication event. CC BY-NC-ND.
Valley Library postcard.
Image 5. Post Card, Front; the image is of The Valley Library. CC BY-NC-ND.
Postcard. The Nishihara Family Classroom 2023 Dedication Ceremony. 'After all of this is over, all that will have really mattered is how we treated each other…' ~ a belief that inspires Janet Nishihara's work. Friday, May 12th, 2023.
Image 6. Post Card, Back; the quotation was included on the classroom door. CC BY-NC-ND.

Reflection on the Process – Issues to Consider

Toponymic Justice as Part of a Larger Social Justice Action Plan  

As we discussed the value, or not, of sharing our experiences with renaming The Nishihara Family Classroom, we acknowledged our sense that this felt like a one-off opportunity as this is currently our library’s only example of space naming with a toponymic justice lens. It is, however, one of many actions the OSU Libraries has taken to engage in social justice and anti-racist work. In the fall term of 2020, we selected DeEtta Jones and Associates, a consulting firm, to offer group training and development opportunities with all library faculty, staff, and administrators to have shared conversations and knowledge regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion concepts. Since that time, as departments and individuals, we have moved forward with various anti-racist actions that are most applicable to our job duties. This meant that by the time the classroom renaming opportunity arose, we did not have to advocate for the idea because both our administrators—especially our Dean and Building Manager—and our colleagues were primed to understand the value of choosing a name using a social justice lens. Upon reflection, this renaming process would have been very difficult, or perhaps not at all possible, if this had not been the case. One of the strongest recommendations we have to offer is that your library already be engaging in actionable social justice activities, with the support of your administration, so that the naming of a space does not become a substitute for structural changes. 

Embedding Toponymic Justice in Naming Policies 

To work towards a more systemic approach across OSULP, the library needs a policy and process for how our organization addresses named spaces moving forward. Reflecting upon the complexity of naming spaces, we see the benefits of OSULP, as a whole, taking a pluralistic approach. This experience revealed that The Valley Library has more spaces named after donors than not, that The Library does not have, at hand, a history of its named spaces, and that we do not have a policy guiding the naming of spaces. In August of 2023, members of the library administration department met with the OSU Foundation, the entity that manages financial contributions to the library, about named spaces within The Valley Library. We imagine that this work could continue as a collaborative project between library administration and representatives from various library departments. We recognize there may be strategic reasons to name a space based on a variety of reasons, including financial donations or honoring someone’s life and work, and that transparency and thoughtfulness in the decision-making process are essential. In hindsight, we would have engaged in this work first. We recommend that other institutions begin these conversations even without a specific naming need, and ideally, develop their space naming policies with a toponymic lens before renaming or naming new spaces.    


As part of our dedication ceremony planning, we thought about ways to assess the impact and significance of the renaming on the community; however, our planned activity did not come to fruition, and that experience spurred a conversation on the purpose of such an assessment.  During the event, we decided to write the question “What does The Nishihara Family Classroom represent to you?” on three of the whiteboards in the classroom. As a popular activity with students, the library often writes prompts on whiteboards on the main floor of the lobby to ask about things like favorite books, preferred study spaces, weekend plans, etc. More often than not, there is a great deal of engagement and response. In this particular case, this activity did not work – there were no responses. Perhaps it was because the vast majority of attendees were faculty and staff, and not students, and the audience was not accustomed to engaging with this type of activity; perhaps the question was too intimate to write a response on a whiteboard as part of an event, or perhaps it was too much to ask for attendees to express the significance of naming in just a few words on a whiteboard. During our debrief of the event, we asked ourselves, what is the purpose of assessing how people feel about the namesake of an already-named space? If the response were to be negative and there were requests for renaming, would the library make them? Our library has never conducted an assessment of its spaces’ namesakes. Future work, perhaps after the compilation of the namesakes’ histories and the creation of a space naming policy, could entail an assessment process of already named spaces to consider if any renaming should or could occur. Rather than a single point of assessment, as we attempted with The Nishihara Family Classroom, it would be better to engage in a more comprehensive and broader conversation about belonging and space use within the library. 

Reviewing Room Use Policies 

An unexpected issue from this renaming process was the existing use of space policy regarding The Nishihara Family Classroom. As of May 2023, the policy is “Only OSU Libraries personnel may reserve this space.” ((OSU Libraries, The Nishihara Family Classroom)) The Library provides two other classroom spaces that are reservable by OSU faculty and staff, but we intended The Nishihara Family Classroom to be a space that OSULP personnel would always have immediate access to and control of since no one external could reserve the space. However, when not reserved, the space is open as a student study space as intended by the library units that collaborate to set the room reservation policies (units include Building Spaces which sits within the Library Administration Department, the Research and Learning Department, and LEAD, the public services department). ((The Nishihara Family Classroom is purposely not included in the Room Scheduling Information page on the OSULP website.)) The dedication ceremony spurred questions around whether the internal usage first policy makes sense for this classroom given the possible option to deepen a relationship with the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP). Dr. Nishihara and her EOP colleagues asked if their office could host a meeting in The Nishihara Family Classroom. Technically, this would be against our current policy, though a library employee could presumably reserve the space on their behalf. This led us to consider whether we should make an exception just for the EOP Office, or if we should rethink the policy altogether. It just so happened that it became a moot point as the day/time the EOP Office requested the room was already reserved. Still, this request highlighted the need to consider our OSU partnerships as we set and update room use policies for the space.


As part of our renaming work and dedication event planning, we found ourselves brainstorming numerous additional plans for the space and are excited for what the future holds. In our conversations with Dr. Nishihara, we discussed ways to make the space more welcoming. The currently white walls are a blank canvas for artwork, especially in collaboration with students and local artists. In the coming years, with administrative support, we plan to continue to strengthen and expand our relationships with community stakeholders such as Dr. Nishihara and the Asian & Pacific Cultural Center to develop collaborative projects, decor, and programming for The Nishihara Family Classroom. While we recognize that these types of efforts should continue to occur in other parts of the library, our relationship with the namesake of The Nishihara Family Classroom, one with no financial strings attached and deep ties to OSU, is a unique opportunity to nurture deep and meaningful engagement opportunities.  

At its core, proactive naming is about community engagement. Recognizing shared values or an inspiring person, or using a democratic process involving the university community, all require library workers to engage with, not only the people that enter the library but the larger campus community. Dr. Janet Nishihara is a valued partner in championing student success and social justice. As the space continues to evolve, we hope that future changes (decor, policies, etc.) are in line with the values we share and it becomes a space that celebrates student success and inclusion. 

As the first instance of proactive naming at OSULP, our mindset has alternated from feeling celebratory to contending with concerns of tokenism and performativity. However, we believe that engaging with these concerns is part of the work of toponymic justice. We acknowledge that a single instance of proactive naming is an act of tokenism. Only by critically examining our actions and policies can we ensure that our proactive naming is rooted in justice and not superficial action. We hope our follow-up actions and engagement with community stakeholders shift the framing of our proactive naming from an act of tokenism to an advancement of social justice. As noted in our reflection, toponymic justice is not done in a bubble and cannot be done if library workers are not already engaging in social justice work. If the only action is a proactive naming process, and there is no follow-up to engage with the larger systemic issues behind namesakes or spaces, then we would argue this is not toponymic justice and only an act of tokenism. 

It can be difficult to break away from financial donation naming practices. We live in a time of limited and shrinking library budgets; a named space in exchange for money to fund new and existing services seems to be a good compromise. However, prioritizing economic stability above all else is a Catch-22 that further perpetuates neoliberalism (Rose-Redwood, Alderman, and Azaryahu 2010). Although not always possible, we encourage library workers to consider ways to resist the neoliberal university, de-prioritizing donors as namesakes is one action. ((Those interested in additional ways to resist, consider reading articles such as “Resisting the Neoliberal University with a General Strike” by James Martel, “Student Success and the Neoliberal Academic Library” by Ian Beilin, and “Towards a Critical Assessment Practice” by Ebony Magnus, Jackie Belanger, and Maggie Faber.)) Small actions add up and can lead to bigger actions and more meaningful change. 


We would like to acknowledge our article’s external peer reviewer, Eamon Tewell, internal peer reviewer, Ian Beilin, and Lead Pipe Editor Ikumi Crocoll. We would also like to thank our OSU Libraries colleagues Laurie Bridges and Beth Filar Williams for reviewing an initial draft of our article. 

Works Cited

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Bonnand, Sheila, and Tim Donahue. 2010. “What’s in a Name? The Evolving Library Commons Concept.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 17, no. 2–3: 225–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2010.487443.

Brasher, Jordan P. 2023. “Place (Re) Naming.” In The Routledge Companion to the American Landscape, edited by Chris W. Post, Alyson L. Greiner, and Geoffrey L. Buckley, 243–52. Taylor & Francis Group.

Brasher, Jordan P., Derek H. Alderman, and Joshua F. J. Inwood. 2017. “Applying Critical Race and Memory Studies to University Place Naming Controversies: Toward a Responsible Landscape Policy.” Papers in Applied Geography 3, no. 3–4: 292–307. https://doi.org/10.1080/23754931.2017.1369892.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. n.d. “Toponymy.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 19, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/science/toponymy.

Brook, Freeda, Dave Ellenwood, and Althea Eannace Lazzaro. 2015. “In Pursuit of Antiracist Social Justice: Denaturalizing Whiteness in the Academic Library.” Library Trends 64, no. 2: 246–84. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2015.0048.

Brown, Joan Lea. 2023. “A Case Study of a Tulsa, Oklahoma School Name Change from Confederate to Indigenous Roots: Supporters’ Meaning-Making.” PhD Thesis, Oklahoma State University.

Crosetto, Alice, and Thomas A. Atwood. 2012. “Naming Academic Libraries: Is Institutional Identity Obscuring the Generous Benefactors and Illustrious Educators of Old?” Names 60, no. 2: 90–104.

Fernández, Natalia M. 2020. “When Building Namesakes Have Ties to White Supremacy: A Case Study of Oregon State University’s Building Names Evaluation Process.” Journal of Western Archives 10, no. 1: Article 5https://doi.org/10.26077/B38E-E3DD.

Manning, Tequilla, Walter N Ingram, and Christopher Crenner. 2023. “Commemorative Naming, Renaming, and the Role of Medical History in Academic Medicine.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 78, no. 1: 121–30. https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/jrac047.

Peet, Lisa. 2020. “LSU Renames Library; Schools Across the Nation Take Similar Steps To Address Racist Past.” Library Journal. July 2, 2020. https://www.libraryjournal.com/story/LSU-renames-library-schools-across-nation-take-similar-steps-to-address-racist-past.

Rose-Redwood, Reuben, Derek Alderman, and Maoz Azaryahu. 2010. “Geographies of Toponymic Inscription: New Directions in Critical Place-Name Studies.” Progress in Human Geography 34 (4): 453–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132509351042.

Tewell, Eamon, Cynthia Tobar, Harvey Long, James Castrillo, and Fobazi Ettarh. 2021. “What’s In a Name? What Named Spaces Tell Us About Academic Libraries.” Paper presented at the Association of College and Research Libraries 20th National Conference, “Ascending into an Open Future” Virtual, April 13–16, 2021. https://alair.ala.org/handle/11213/17600.

Wilkins, James. 2023. “A Step Toward a New Library Near Tiger Stadium, Big Renovations Coming to LSU, Leaders Say.” The Advocate. June 24, 2023. https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/education/lsu-receiving-232-million-over-next-year-from-legislature/article_c80102e0-0af4-11ee-a1c7-f37def8e4181.html.

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