Four young men smile up from an old black-and-white photograph from the 1920s. Frozen for one moment in time, they sit together on a fence, beaming, all the promises and opportunities of the future shining before them.
This, says dedicated College Archivist Barbara O’Brien, is her favorite item from the Archives. Even among the collections of diaries from past college presidents and the research and accomplishments of McDaniel alumni, this picture stands out. It represents the beginning of a story for all four students, and stories—whether from real life or from a good historical novel—fascinate her.
Originally an English major, O’Brien avoided history at all costs during her years at Green Mountain College in Vermont. She grew up in Connecticut, close to New York City, and preferred reading Shakespeare in school to learning about boring historical events from a textbook. After graduating from Green Mountain, O’Brien moved several times around the U.S. before settling in Maryland with her husband and two high school-age children. It was then, while she was volunteering at the Farm Museum in Westminster, that history finally began to appeal to her and she made the decision to go back to college.
Initially unsure of where to go with her second degree, O’Brien studied history at UMBC and says she just “fell into archives,” becoming fascinated with the interesting stories she could find there. This newfound love of history ultimately led her to McDaniel where she has worked for the past ten years, a welcome change from her former job working with retirement plans at T. Rowe Price.
This change turned out to be a good one for McDaniel as well. Her co-worker in the library, Access Services Librarian Jane Sharpe, says that thanks to O’Brien the “Archives are in better condition and better organized than ever.”
Sharpe says that O’Brien is always ready to share an interesting item or piece of information she comes across in her work. Driven by her own interest in the stories she finds and a willingness to share her knowledge with others, O’Brien works with students and faculty alike and encourages them to take advantage of the unique resources the Archives hold.
“I don’t know of anyone else at this institution who can do what she does,” says History Professor Bryn Upton, who admires her expertise and enthusiasm for the archives. O’Brien enjoys discovering unexpected and intriguing facts connected with the college and wants to make sure students know that they can do the same.
“Luck favors the prepared mind,” is her personal motto. “Opportunities happen,” she explains, and you have to be ready for them when they do. She sees this proven time and time again in the stories she finds in the archives, stories of McDaniel alumni who went on to accomplish extraordinary things — some of the first women doctors, influential cancer researchers, and educators who traveled the world.
Apart from her job, her love of reading, and keeping in touch with her family, O’Brien’s thirst for knowledge keeps her busy learning watercolor, knitting, and cooking new foods from different countries.
With such an appreciation for the way opportunity shapes our lives, O’Brien faithfully follows any new story she acquires for the Archives, watching the interesting turns they take as they progress.
“It’s kind of like a puzzle,” she says; she enjoys putting the pieces together even though she never knows if it will end up complete. Any piece of the story, even just the beginning, is enough.
So it all comes back to the picture of four boys on a fence, a moment captured so long ago and still surviving today, partly due to the care and expertise of Barbara O’Brien. She makes it possible for students to access the wealth of information that is kept there, keeping snapshots of the old generations alive while helping the new generations create histories of their own.