Saying goodbye: Margaret O’Bryant on 30 years at the historical society

After more than 30 years of managing its vast historical collection, Margaret O’Bryant has bid the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical society adieu. PC: John Robinson After more than 30 years of managing its vast historical collection, Margaret O’Bryant has bid the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical society adieu. PC: John Robinson

For most of her life, Margaret O’Bryant has called the library home. After receiving a master’s degree in library science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she worked in libraries at Ferrum College, Lenoir-Rhyne College, and UVA, later moving to the reference department at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.

While at the public library in 1987, O’Bryant also volunteered with the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, helping to move its collection from a space on Court Square to the former McIntire Library on Second Street SE, where the society planned to dedicate a room to its archival collection. A year later, the society received funding from the city and county to create a formal librarian position, which O’Bryant eagerly applied for—and got.

Now, after more than 30 years of managing its vast historical collection, O’Bryant has bid the society adieu. She officially retired at the beginning of this month, and is now working on clearing out her things and preparing the library for whoever takes her place. We sat down with her to reflect on her time there. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

C-VILLE: How has Charlottesville changed since you started working at the society?

Margaret O’Bryant: I think the nature of historical attention has changed over this period, in ways that are good, and that are a little more disconcerting in ways to some people. There’s been more attention given to a whole spectrum of history in the community.

What’s the strangest inquiry or request you’ve ever gotten?

This isn’t necessarily strange, and I don’t mean this negatively. But we get roughly 1,300 to 1,5000 people per year who come here in person to do research, and the largest percentage of those people are here to do genealogical research. It’s always been interesting how things are passed on in a family about their background or history…and it’s frequently not entirely accurate. It can be amusing, and sometimes can be a little more difficult for people. They have to deal in one way or another with the fact that things are not always what they had thought it had been. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

What’s your favorite memory of working at the society?

I will always remember fondly the reception the society and JMRL put together in December, when the society named the reading room here after me…it was quite moving.

What will you miss the most about your job?

It’s usually the people that you work with that you miss more than anything else. I’ve certainly had a lot of wonderful relationships with the people that I work with and for, and also the people who come here to do research…I’ll also miss the whole process of looking for things, trying to see where they can be found, and finding whatever it is that may be helpful.

Now that you’re retired, what are you going to do next?

I told my husband I don’t want to make any specific plans for several months…but I would like to do some additional travel, both within the country and some foreign travel. As far as locally…I may do some things at the society as a volunteer. That would only be if the new librarian and director are comfortable having me around!

Margaret O’Bryant, in brief

Education: Bachelor’s degree in classical languages from the College of William & Mary, master’s degree in library science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

First job in Charlottesville: Drove volunteers around for Charlottesville’s retired senior volunteer program.

Famous use of the society’s resources: “Finding Your Roots,” a PBS genealogical documentary series hosted by acclaimed historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.

 

Correction February 19: the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society receives around 1,300 to 1,500 visitors per year, not 13,000 to 15,000 as originally reported.

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