Margaret Brunton to retire after 21 years as head librarian at the Chestnut Hill branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. (Photo Sue Ann Rybak)

Margaret Brunton to retire after 21 years as head librarian at the Chestnut Hill branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. (Photo Sue Ann Rybak)

by Carole Verona

Things change. And they change often. But at the Chestnut Hill branch of the Free Library, one thing has been constant for at least a generation: Margaret Brunton has been the branch’s head librarian for 21 years.

Nothing is forever, however. On Friday, March 14, Brunton will retire from a job in which she has seen many of the neighborhood’s patrons grow to adulthood.

The community is invited to an open house in Brunton’s honor on Saturday, March 14, between 1 and 4 p.m. Light refreshments will be served, compliments of the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library.

Lynne Haase, children’s librarian, who is organizing the event, said, “I encourage all members of the community who have known Brunton for all these years to come to the open house to wish her well and to thank her for all that she has done for Chestnut Hill.”

Brunton, 64, was born in Georgia, grew up in Mississippi and also lived in Kentucky for 12 years. She received a bachelor’s degree in history and library science from Mississippi State College for Women in 1972 and a master’s degree in information and library science from Louisiana State University in 1974.

Referring to Brunton’s roots, Eleanor Murdoch, the Friends’ hospitality chair, said, “Margaret has retained her southern charm in the midst of an often chaotic environment.”

Brunton moved to Philadelphia in 1987 because she was always interested in archeology, history and art.

“I just wanted to live in another part of the country, and Philadelphia has so many wonderful universities, museums and cultural places,” she said.

Her career with the Free Library of Philadelphia began at the Northeast Regional Library. She then bounced around a bit before becoming manager of the Fox Chase Branch. She came to Chestnut Hill as branch manager in 1994.

Among her many responsibilities, Brunton oversees building repairs and maintenance; supervises the staff of eight; develops and implements programming, and, of course, is available to help whoever walks through the door.

“The nice thing about working in a branch is that you interact with all levels of people, ranging from infants to seniors,” she said. “You never know who’s going to come in. The position requires a certain mental nimbleness. One person may be looking for a recommendation for a preschooler. Then next person may be asking a fairly sophisticated reference question,” she said.

Brunton has also been with a book discussion group at the library for close to 20 years.

“We like to read books that will raise our awareness of the concerns of other countries,” she said. “We read many foreign authors. I love it when somebody says, ‘I never would have read this book if you hadn’t asked us to.’ There’s often lively debate, which means they’re stretching and expanding their horizons.”

During her tenure, Brunton has obviously seen the library evolve from a location primarily housing paper records and books to one where all kinds of virtual media are stored and accessed.

“When I first came, the use of computers was limited to the actual circulation desk where materials were checked in and out,” she explained. “We had a rudimentary online catalog back then. Now we have computers in the library, Wi-Fi, and marvelous databases that you can access from the Free Library’s home page for doing homework or research or just to satisfy your personal curiosity. These services are available to anybody who has a library card.”

How does she feel about the transition from physical books to virtual information?

“They’re still books, just in a different format, although I do think there’s a swing back to paper,” Brunton said. “I’ve had several people tell me that they were into reading on Kindles and iPads when they first came out. Now they’ve decided they really like holding a book.”

Carol Duncan, president of the Friends, said, “Margaret brings out the strengths and gifts of each person she encounters. She overlooks, or possibly doesn’t notice, anyone’s foibles and faults. She shows great compassion for the myriad library patrons and friends who constantly besiege her workspace. She is constantly helpful whenever I, or any board member, have a question. We in Chestnut Hill have been hugely fortunate to have Margaret in our midst.”

“I have thoroughly enjoyed working here,” Brunton added. “Chestnut Hill is a lovely area and unique in many ways. I encourage everyone in Chestnut Hill to become a member of the Friends of the Library because they do so much to make this library stronger and better stocked for the community.”

Terry Clark, secretary of the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, said that Brunton is the epitome of a good librarian. “She consistently shows knowledge and tact. She has an enormous knowledge of the community. I will miss her greatly.”

Brunton and her husband, Brian Garnant, who is also retired, plan to sell their home in West Mt. Airy and will relocate to the mountains of North Carolina. Brunton and her sister purchased land there about 14 years ago. Her sister already lives “on one side of the hill,” and Brunton and her husband will build a house on the other side.

“My sister and I will be able to shout to each other and hear each other,” she said, “but we won’t be watching each other coming and going. It will be so much fun.

“I had horses when I lived in Kentucky, and we’ll be able to have horses in North Carolina. We’re also going to try raising chickens and maybe some goats. It’s going to be the process of living and learning!” Brunton has already volunteered at the local library.

“I told them I would shelve books, and, if they wanted it, I could start a book discussion series,” she said.

As she prepares for retirement, Brunton admitted that “this is a time of mixed feelings.”

“I’ve become very fond of the people I work with and some members of the public,” she said. “I have seen so many kids grow up here. There were a lot of children when I first came who are now in college or who have even graduated. It’s been delightful to encourage young people to find and read books, and then see them go off to college and have exciting futures.

“Over the years, one young man and I often talked about computer games. He came in over the Christmas break and was sad when I told him I wouldn’t be here next Christmas when he comes in. ‘But you’re always here,’ he said.”

The Chestnut Hill Library is located at 8711 Germantown Ave. For more information about the open house or the library in general, call 215-685-9290.