For more than 30 years, Margaret O’Bryant has helped people from all over Albemarle County research Virginia history and genealogy.
A familiar face in the research library at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, O’Bryant, the librarian and head of reference resources, is the first and — so far — only person in the position. She is officially retiring Feb. 1.
“My ancestors have been in Virginia for a long, long time, and it’s satisfying to me that the things about my own personal background, and growing up where I did and at the time that I did is helpful to me in this job, because placing things in Virginia is a lot of what we have to deal with here,” she said.
On a typical day, O’Bryant can be found in the society’s reading room and library, which was recently named in her honor, assisting someone researching their family history, or in another room in the building, retrieving manuscripts, photos, maps or periodicals.
Shelley Viola Murphy, chair of the society’s board of directors and its current interim executive director, said O’Bryant is the person area residents should talk to to hunt for information — and if O’Bryant didn’t know something herself, she knew where to send people to find out.
“I’m sorry to see her retire,” Murphy said. “I don’t want to be selfish about it, but she has done a lot for the historical society as well as the community.”
Many who come to the research library are from Charlottesville and Albemarle County, but O’Bryant said patrons from other parts of Virginia, as well as other parts of the country and the occasional foreign visitor, come to research history.
“Currently, we get 1,300 to 1,400 people per year who come in person to do research,” she said. “We also get a lot of inquiries, they used to come by mail, now come by email, and sometimes people call on the phone for things too.”
David Plunkett, director of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, said O’Bryant has been a steady anchor in the research library.
“I’m going to miss — more than anything, JMRL is going to miss — the knowledge that Margaret has,” he said. “We can hire somebody and train somebody and show them all the materials, but there’s decades worth of research knowledge that she has at her recall. I’m threatening to call her every day and just say, ‘Where’s this? Where’s that?’ Or just even, ‘Can you answer this question?’ because she really has seen so much at both organizations in her tenure here that she has a more solid understanding of the history of this area, I think, than almost anybody.”
O’Bryant attended the College of William and Mary and received a master’s degree in library science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After previous experience at libraries at Ferrum College and Lenoir-Rhyne College, she and her husband moved to Charlottesville for his job at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Library, and she took a job with the city in its retired senior volunteer program.
She drove volunteers all across the city and said it was a valuable experience, as she ultimately continued working with mostly older volunteers at the historical society.
“I’ve worked with them all these times and now I will be one,” she said with a laugh.
She worked in the Interlibrary Loan office at the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library for 10 years. Then, she started working part-time as a reference librarian for JMRL and as a volunteer for the historical society, where she helped the society move its collection from a space on Court Square to the mezzanine of the Central Library.
Murphy said she has known O’Bryant for about 10 years, and that O’Bryant, with her in-depth knowledge of local history, has helped Murphy with her own genealogy research work.
“That’s really critical to have someone with that type of knowledge in our area, and she’s just been an asset for anyone who’s accessed the historical society, because she knows so much,” she said.
Despite all the technological changes that have happened in libraries over the last 50 years, O’Bryant said the basics of her job have stayed the same.
“The reference interview is a standard saying in the library world, and that doesn’t change from any kind of transition from books, to databases, to electronic information, to digital images — that exchange, that basic thing about the user saying what it is that they want, that’s what you need, and then you can take off onto whatever else that may be within your collection,” she said.
“I think that process of becoming familiar with your own collection, what’s there and then being able to apply it to what people come to you to find out, I’ve always found that challenging in the sense that I wanted to do it, that I enjoy doing it,” she said. “It’s a good feeling when you actually have something that people want and can help them make use of it.”
O’Bryant has worked mostly in the building the society rents from the city, but she has technically been a JMRL employee, which has kept her position shielded from many of the recent leadership issues at the society.
She said that setup was advantageous because the library has a specific structure for how it works with employees.
“I don’t mean that negatively about the society, but it’s a difference of that kind of structure you’re a part of as opposed to what a private nonprofit organization is able to offer,” she said.
O’Bryant said she’s open to working with the next person in her position in whatever capacity they need.
Plunkett said the job should be filled within the next two months.
“It is a very unique role between these two organizations and serving the public as a member of library staff, but also shepherding so much of the historical collection over there,” he said. “It’s going to take whoever comes in some time to figure it out. They will have the support of both organizations.”