“We Virginians, we really love our history,” said Laura Wickstead, director of the Virginia Room at the City of Fairfax Regional Library. “That’s for sure.”
There’s certainly a lot to love. After all, this is the part of the country that produced George Mason, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Virginia was a hotbed of the Civil War. More recently, it’s where the mysterious urban legend known as the Bunny Man did whatever it is that Bunny Men do.
Laura and her small staff work to help patrons tease out the skeins of Virginia history, whether the strands are about the famous, the infamous or the little-known.
Most Virginia county library systems have a Virginia Room. Fairfax’s is on the second floor of the handsome, modern library on North Street in the center of Fairfax City. On a recent afternoon, Laura showed Answer Man around.
“We’re sitting within a virtual stone’s throw of the Library of Congress, the National Archives and these fabulous university collections,” Laura said, “but even these smaller public library collections are superb and have things you don’t find other places.”
In Fairfax’s case, that includes an unrivaled microfilm collection of Northern Virginia newspapers: the Fairfax County Independent, the Fairfax Herald, the Reston Times and others. Patrons can do some of the searching from home, through the Virginia Room’s Web site: www.fairfaxcounty.gov/library/
You can’t pull up actual articles, but since volunteers did the grunt work of going through old issues and filling a database with terms, you can do subject searches. Search the word “murder,” for example, and you’ll get 14 responses, each with a hint of what the complete article is about. That’s fewer than Answer Man expected, but it includes this gem from the Jan. 10, 1865, Alexandria Gazette: “Not committed by fat men.”
Must go get the microfilm and check that out.
Laura has been head of the Virginia Room since October 2012, when she took over from the retiring Suzanne Levy. Suzanne had been at the helm for more than 30 years (often helping Answer Man with his enquiries).
Laura previously headed up Roanoke’s Virginia Room. Earlier, she oversaw the historic collection in a public library in northwestern Pennsylvania. She’s part of a small staff in Fairfax’s Virginia Room — not even three full-time equivalents, augmented with volunteers and interns.
“It’s not all on the Internet,” Laura said of the corpus of material that might be of interest to both the casual and the hard-core researcher. “If it were, you wouldn’t have to come and see me.”
Among those who visit regularly are students from Northern Virginia Community College. Every year, a history teacher there gives each of his students the name of a Civil War veteran buried in the Fairfax cemetery. Their assignment: Build a life out of public records from that simple starting point.
The room has a complete microfilmed set of service records for Confederate soldiers (from all states, not just Virginia). It can help with searches of specific pieces of property in the county. It can help make sense of the Census and access Social Security death records.
Laura is fascinated by a voluminous assortment of Virginia election materials: brochures, fliers and sample ballots from state and local races from 1960 to the present. The staff is in the process of collating nearly 50,000 images taken by Quentin Porter, a professional photographer who started busily capturing the county in the 1940s. The partial index reveals some of the gems he snapped: “4-H Club, 1949. . . . 7 Corners Shopping Center, 1956. . . . Dixie Sheet Metal, 1956.”
The Virginia Room knows where the bodies are buried, too. Former staffer Brian Conley assembled a wealth of material on county cemeteries.
Brian also was fascinated by the Bunny Man tales, macabre legends of the sort teenagers tell each other. He was able to trace the story back to actual reports of a hatchet-wielding man clad in a bunny suit who was sighted on two occasions in 1970 on Guinea Road. Brian makes the case that the Bunny Man, in his oddly rabbit-like way, may have been protesting the development that was creeping across Fairfax County.
Of course, our area is constantly evolving, which is why it’s so important to have resources such as the Virginia Room.
Laura said she understands the challenges of doing research, the frustration that can set in when you think you’ve hit a dead end.
“You do a search for someone or something and a little voice says: ‘It doesn’t exist. It can’t be done,’ ” she said. “Tell yourself, ‘I haven’t found it yet.’ ”
The Virginia Room is in the City of Fairfax Regional Library, 10360 North St., Fairfax. Its hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday (no service by phone); 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m to 6 p.m. Friday; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Phone: 703-293-6227 (press 6). Web: www.fairfaxcounty.