Elaine Tennant named new Bancroft Library director

BERKELEY — Elaine Tennant, a medieval and early modern specialist in the German and Scandinavian departments at the University of California, Berkeley, will become the James D. Hart Director of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library starting in September.

Tennant said she hopes to help integrate The Bancroft more fully into the campus’s teaching and research missions and wants the library to take an active role in the ongoing discussion of the nature of information and the future of libraries in the 21st century.

“Collections of material artifacts like those held by The Bancroft present special challenges and have a particular contribution to make to our thinking about information in an increasingly virtual environment,” Tennant said. “Figuring out what the relationship is between old and new technologies, and among multiple forms of knowing, is the kind of thing that Berkeley’s great at.”

Elaine Tennant, new director of The Bancroft Library. Photo by Peg Skorpinski.

The Bancroft is home to the world’s finest collection of primary sources on the history of California and the American West, as well as to the Mark Twain Papers and Project, The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, wide-ranging contemporary literary collections, the Free Speech Movement Archive, Regional Oral History Office, rare books and manuscripts and more. Most recently, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life also became a part of the collections. In 2009, The Bancroft reopened on campus following a three-year, $64 million seismic retrofit and reconstruction financed jointly by the state and more than 700 private donors.

“Scholars such as professor Tennant send their students to the Bancroft because the collections illuminate the big questions on campus today, especially the role of new people and new technology changing California,” said Tom Leonard, UC Berkeley’s University Librarian.

Tennant said she aims to forge new alliances with the School of Information and other campus units in order to expand the discourse that “sometimes bogs down when the students and scholars who need to touch their books (or crocodile mummies) don’t find much common (library) ground with those who need their information ‘born digital.’ There’s a lot to talk about, and I hope The Bancroft will have a regular seat at the table.”

Because The Bancroft contains rare documents and fragile manuscripts, it has been a leader in providing virtual access to such materials. And that access, said Tennant, has actually increased the foot traffic to the library’s reading room. Visitors to the Bancroft website often come to examine in person the artifacts whose images on the computer screen have piqued their curiosity. “People see things online, and they immediately want to come and really see them,” she said.

William B. Taylor, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of history, said he knows of no one on the faculty who has worked as closely and thoughtfully with The Bancroft.

“She knows its treasures and has a generous sense of how they can be made available to the campus community and the public for instructional use, research, professional development and exhibition,” Taylor said. “She has the leadership skills, welcoming presence, ingenuity, and love for this great library that will keep the collections alive and well in the years to come.”

Leonard noted that Tennant throughout her career has brought her students to The Bancroft. She said she envisions creating new courses with a “Bancroft-value-added” dimension, as well as internships to expose students not only to the special collections and archives available nowhere else in the world, but also to The Bancroft’s “superb team of curators and archivists.”

“It’s a point of pride with me not to let the classes I teach leave Berkeley without having had a chance to learn something about The Bancroft collections,” Tennant has said.  “The Bancroft Library is one of the most dynamic teaching centers on the Berkeley campus.” 

She fills the post vacated earlier this summer by Charles Faulhaber, a UC Berkeley emeritus professor of Spanish and Portuguese, who had held the post since 1995. She will be the first woman to direct The Bancroft in its 151-year history.

Tennant, who did her graduate work at Harvard University and the University of Vienna, joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1977. She served several times as chair of the Scandinavian Department and for nearly a decade on the UC Berkeley Academic Senate Library Committee.