Work Hard, Have Fun, Make History

Serendipity and Public History

by Sandra Treadway

22nd Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards Celebration, October 19, 2019

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect that I would one day be the Librarian of Virginia and have the opportunity to lead one of the most amazing historical organizations in the country.  Never would I have anticipated spending my entire career in the realm of public history or have had any inkling of how interesting and fulfilling a career it would be.  Serendipity can sometimes be a wonderful thing.

Looking back, I know that I was destined to be a historian.  History has been a love and passion of mine as far back as I can remember. The landscape of the small New Jersey town in which I grew up contained a number of historic sites that captured my imagination from a very young age.  The town’s public library, for example, was located inside a house built in the 1780s by a Revolutionary War veteran.  I spent much time during my elementary school years in that special place, soaking in the building’s atmosphere and reading every history book I could find in the children’s section.

I majored in history in college and went on to earn my doctoral degree in American history at the University of Virginia.  At the time, it was a given that all who completed the graduate program would teach at the university level and that was what I hoped to do.  The phrase “public history” had not yet been coined nor were graduate students then made aware of employment opportunities outside the academy.  At the time I finished my degree, however, the job market for university professors was extremely tight and tenure track positions were few and far between.  I spotted an opening at the Library of Virginia editing Virginia Cavalcade magazine and other history titles that the Library published and I decided to apply.  My plan was to acquire useful editorial experience and wait until the academic job market eased.  Once I experienced the power and potential of working in public history, that plan changed.

The Library of Virginia houses the most comprehensive collection available anywhere documenting more than 400 years of Virginia history, culture, and government.  Here one can find the official records of the state and the papers of every Virginia governor since 1776 as well as hundreds of thousands of rare books, maps, newspapers, photographs, architectural drawings, business records, family papers, local and state court proceedings, vital records (birth, death, marriage, etc.) and much, much more.  The Library is truly a history lover’s paradise and a treasure trove of information about Virginia and Virginians.

Lobby of Former Library of Virginia Building

When I first joined the staff, only a fraction of this rich collection was used regularly.     Most researchers were aware of the governors’ papers, the records relating to the American Revolution and the Civil War, and our extensive print and microfilm holdings in local history and genealogy.  They had no idea how the collection might help advance our understanding of social history, women’s history, economic history, African American history, and so many other then-neglected aspects of Virginia’s past.  I was amazed at the resources I found, and eager to dive in.  But I also wanted to spread the word and find ways to share what the Library had with others.  I was fortunate that the agency was poised and ready for change and that we were able over time to hire wonderfully talented staff who became as passionate about opening up the collections to new audiences as I was.

The development of the World Wide Web, integrated library systems, powerful search engines, and effective discovery tools have been essential to our success in making collections more widely known and accessible.  The Library was one of the first historical repositories in the nation to make use of these technologies and to embrace digitization of heavily used or unique collections.  We continue to be a leader in that arena through our Virginia Memory website (  We were fortunate twenty years ago to move into a new building that facilitated access to our physical collections but also had large meeting, exhibition, and programmatic space.

Lobby of Current Library of Virginia Building

These spaces have enabled us to share our collections and staff expertise with general audiences in creative and engaging ways.  As archivists, librarians, and public historians, our staff has made the most of opportunities to convey the findings of academic historians and researchers to a wider public.  Several years ago, for example, we mounted an exhibition titled To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade based on a terrific book on the subject by University of Virginia professor Maurie McInnis. Many who visited the exhibition were not familiar with the book but they left with an understanding of Virginia’s role in the domestic slave trade and the devastating effects of that trade and its legacy on Virginia and American history.  Bringing the best that the historical profession has to offer into public view and spotlighting the past to inform our collective future is one of the most rewarding aspects of working in public history.

The Opening of We Demand: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia with First Lady Pam Northam

Through collection guides and finding aids, digital access to collections, exhibitions, public programs, workshops for educators, and much more the Library of Virginia has facilitated research into overlooked aspects of Virginia’s history and has shared that research with audiences who are eager to learn about the past.  Earlier in my career at the Library, I was directly involved in many of these activities but since becoming an administrator and ultimately head of the agency, my role has changed.  Now, much of my time is spent working with board members and external stakeholders, government officials, funders and donors, and in trying to secure resources to support the staff in their good work.

22nd Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards Celebration, October 19, 2019 with author Brad Parks

This is important and the responsibility that goes with the job. But my best moments, the ones that remind me why I love what I do, are those when I get to witness the impact that our collections have on visitors.  When I see a child tremble with excitement when she is allowed to hold a book that once belonged to Patrick Henry, the Voice of the American Revolution, or watch a visitor wipe tears from his eyes when he discovers an ancestor’s photo in an exhibition on African American soldiers in World War I, I know that what we do makes a difference.  Serendipity led me to a career in public history.  May you have the same good fortune!

~Dr. Sandra Gioia Treadway is the Librarian of Virginia


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