May 13th, 2020
Frances O’Brien, former Dean of West Virginia University Libraries, passed away Friday, May 8, at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her daughter, EJ Painter, was with her.
O’Brien served as dean of Libraries from June 1999 until her retirement in December 2011. During her tenure, she oversaw the construction of the Downtown Campus Library and the Library’s state-of-the-art Book Depository as well as renovations to the Wise Library and Evansdale Library. In addition, she worked to implement multiple technological enhancements.
In 2006, the Wise Library received designation as a Literary Landmark because of the library’s connection to the late Dr. Louise McNeill Pease, Poet Laureate of West Virginia from 1977-1993.
“Frances served as dean during an important era of growth for the WVU libraries,” said John Cuthbert, director of the West Virginia and Regional History Center. “Funding and technological support for the WVU libraries also increased dramatically during the period of her leadership as did WVU Libraries participation in regional and nationwide consortia like the Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium (PALCI) and Lyrasis.”
PALCI membership provided WVU students and faculty with access to literally millions of new items, Penny Pugh, head of Research Services for the Downtown Campus Library, explained.
Pugh also praised O’Brien for partnering with Barbara Winters, then dean of Marshall Libraries, to initiate the work to create a virtual library for all of West Virginia to provide key online databases to all types of libraries – public, K-12 schools and higher education institutions. This eventually came into being under the WV Library Commission and is known as WVInfoDepot, http://wvinfodepot.org/.
“I was personally grateful to her for improved professional development support, which allowed librarians to be more active in state and national organizations,” Pugh said.
When Mary Strife, library director at WVU Institute of Technology, served as the Evansdale Library director under O’Brien, she saw O’Brien as an advocate for their librarians and staff.
“I think Frances helped raise the profile of the Evansdale Library and establish its importance to the campus. Also, she gave us the freedom to interact with our faculty and students in unique and relevant ways,” Strife said.
A key to success was that O’Brien had established good relationships with the academic deans. When the plan to renovate the Evansdale Campus was being formulated, Strife recalls the Evansdale academic deans approaching O’Brien to make sure the library was included.
“We doubled the number of study rooms and added movable furniture so students could collaborate more easily. In the second wave of improvements, we got our café, Da Vinci’s,” Strife said. “You could see how much the enhancements meant to the campus community.”
Prior to coming to WVU, O’Brien was the deputy university librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her career included library posts at Virginia Tech, the University of Tennessee, the University of Georgia and the University of Delaware.