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An Interview with Gail Warren, Virginia State Law Librarian

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The following is a guest post by Andrew Winston, a legal reference librarian in the Public Services Division of the Law Library of Congress.  Andrew interviews the Virginia State Law Librarian, Gail Warren.  We have previously interviewed another state law librarian, Jennifer Frazier, from Kentucky.

How long have you been the Virginia State Law Librarian, and what was the educational and professional path that led you to this position?

Gail Warren leaning against a gray wall next to a plaque with "Supreme Court of Virginia..." written on it.
Gail Warren at the Supreme Court of Virginia

I’ve spent the past thirty-two and a half years in the same position!  My original career goal, dating back to when I was 14 or 15 years old, was to go to law school and become another Perry Mason, the mystery-solving criminal defense attorney.  At the time, my family saw this as a passing desire; none of the other members of my family had graduated from college.  My interest in law school only intensified, though, and after receiving my undergraduate degree from James Madison University in 1978, I enrolled the same year in the University of Richmond School of Law.

During my second year of law school, I began to realize the practice of law seemed like less of a match for my personality and temperament.  Fortunately, in the second semester of my first year of law school, I had started a work-study position with the law library at the University of Richmond and found I truly enjoyed working there.  I began by filing looseleaf services, then worked at the circulation desk, and before long was working an evening shift at the reference desk.  By the third year of law school, my mind was made up:  it was law librarianship, rather than the practice of law, that would be my professional focus.

A room with a table and chairs and several bookshelves.
Virginia State Law Library Reading Room

As graduation neared, the law school’s placement office sent me a job listing for a temporary one-year position at the Virginia State Law Library.  The position had been created to assist with the library’s move from a building on Broad Street in Richmond to its current home in the former Federal Reserve Bank building.  Before my position ended, the state law librarian at that time, Marjorie D. Kirtley, announced her retirement.  I applied for the position of state law librarian, was interviewed by the chief justice and other justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and after receiving confirmation that I had passed the February 1982 Virginia bar exam, was appointed to serve as state law librarian, effective September 1, 1982.  At that time, I had not yet studied library science.  As a condition of my appointment, in the spring of 1982 I enrolled in the graduate library science program at Catholic University and received a master’s in library science in 1987.

What is the primary mission of the Virginia State Law Library?

As an integral unit of the Supreme Court of Virginia, the Virginia State Law Library seeks to provide the highest quality customer-oriented library service that will contribute to the mission of the Supreme Court of Virginia, the Court of Appeals of Virginia and the legal community.

Who are your patrons at the Virginia State Law Library, and what sorts of services do you provide to them?

You can find a formal listing of the categories of patrons who can use the State Law Library in Section 42.1-64 of the Virginia Code:

The Governor and other state officers at the seat of government, the Reporter of the Supreme Court, members of the General Assembly and an individual designated by a member of the General Assembly to perform legal research, judges of courts, and practicing attorneys in good standing, and such other persons as the Supreme Court shall designate[.]

Our primary user group includes justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia, judges of the Court of Appeals of Virginia, and their respective staffs.  We perform complete, in-depth original research for our primary users.  We maintain chambers collections of legal materials for these appellate judges in twenty-six offices across the state.  Our library houses the archives of the Supreme Court of Virginia and we are responsible for an ongoing oral history program.  We also sponsor a book discussion group for court staff, which meets regularly when personnel will be in Richmond for court sessions.

The court allows paralegals, law students, and librarians at other law libraries to use the Virginia State Law Library.  Although we cannot perform research for members of the public, we do respond to telephone calls and emails from the public with suggestions on how and where they might perform their own legal research, and information about sources of Virginia legal information, both print and online. We also provide some services for attorneys, including citation-checking and fee-based document delivery.

Do you work closely with the Supreme Court of Virginia?

As a member of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s management team, I report directly to the chief justice. Among other things, I present a summary of the State Law Library’s activities to the justices each year at the court’s annual retreat.  I also serve on Virginia’s Access to Justice Commission, which is co-chaired by one of the justices.  As I mentioned earlier, library staff perform significant original research for the justices and their judicial law clerks.  We also provide an annual orientation for the court’s incoming clerks, as well as various training sessions during the year.

Please tell us a little about the Supreme Court of Virginia building in which the library is housed. Does it have any particularly noteworthy features?

The Supreme Court of Virginia’s building was originally commissioned for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.  The six story building, featuring a colonnade of Ionic columns above a high and simple granite base with low, projecting side wings, was designed by the Baltimore architectural firm of Sill, Buckler & Fenhagen.  The main structure was completed in 1921 and the building was expanded three times during its service as a Federal Reserve Bank.  The Commonwealth of Virginia purchased the building in 1977, and in 1978 began renovations for its use as a courthouse.  We moved into the building in November 1981.

The courtroom foyer and courtroom of the Supreme Court of Virginia building display oil portraits of almost all of the justices who have served on the Supreme Court of Virginia.  You can view these portraits online.  That website also includes biographies of past and present justices of the court, and audio recordings and transcripts of oral history interviews of retired justices, 2007-2011.

The Supreme Court’s courtroom was originally the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s banking room.  The courtroom’s walls are of Indiana limestone, and the Doric columns along the walls and behind the bench are of Pink Tennessee limestone.  The court’s bench is made of mahogany.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the room is its ceiling–although that is not immediately apparent.  During the renovation of the building, to accommodate needed duct work, a second, false ceiling was constructed below the true ceiling of the room.  The original ceiling was an adaption of Renaissance design with Greek detail and carved female heads are placed along the top edge of the walls, supporting the clerestory cornice.  The Federal Reserve records indicate the heads were carved after a copy “of an archaic Greek head found at Athens.”  Unfortunately, the only way one can now view the original ceiling is through mechanical access doors in the law library.

A black and white photograph from above a room with columns on the edges, and a center filled with tables and chairs.
Photo from 1921 provided to the Virginia State Law Library by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. This room is now the courtroom of the Supreme Court of Virginia, shown before it was renovated. The ornate ceiling, now hidden by the false ceiling described in the interview, is visible.

What do you know about your predecessor Virginia State Law Librarians?

Although a court library has served the Supreme Court since 1846, the position of “State Law Librarian” was not established until 1902.  Before 1902, the clerk of the court administered the legal collection.  There have been five state law librarians before me.

  • William Wallace Scott served from 1902 until 1929, when he died in office. Scott was a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and served as state librarian from 1884 until his appointment as the first State Law Librarian in 1902.
  • Lloyd Montague Richards served from 1929 until his retirement in 1961. Richards began his service to the Supreme Court of Virginia as the custodian of the court’s building in 1910.  He studied law taking night classes then offered by the T.C. Williams School of Law (now the University of Richmond School of Law) while working at the State Law Library, passed the Virginia bar in 1919, and became the state law librarian in 1929.  While serving as state law librarian, he maintained a law practice and was active in local politics.
  • Hubert Elmer Kiser served from 1961 until his death in 1966. A graduate of Emory and Henry, he served for twenty-four years as the Clerk of the Circuit Court in Tazewell County, Virginia, before becoming the state law librarian.
  • Walter S. Griggs, Jr. served from 1966 until 1968, when he stepped down to pursue a career in higher education, obtaining a master’s degree from the University of Richmond and an Ed.D from the College of William & Mary. He is now an associate professor of business at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia and the author of several books on Richmond history and moose.
  • Marjorie Duke Kirtley, my immediate predecessor, served from 1968 until her retirement in 1982. Kirtley was responsible for the designation of the State Law Library as a Federal Depository Library in 1974.  She also planned and oversaw the library’s move from the former courthouse on Broad Street to its current location on Ninth Street in Richmond.

Have you received any memorable questions that you may discuss?

We have researched a number of interesting questions for the supreme court justices, appellate court judges, and their staffs over the years.  One that springs to mind is a request to investigate the origins of the song “Unchained Melody.”  In recent years, we have also performed quite a bit of historical and genealogical research on early courts and judges in Virginia.

Do you have a rare books collection?

An aisle with bookshelves down each side.
Virginia State Law Library Stacks

The State Law Library does not maintain a true rare books collection.  Our collection does, however, include a number of items that would be considered rare books, such as 17th and 18th century legal treatises, particularly Virginia legal treatises.  Unfortunately, years ago a number of these rare volumes were rebound in buckram, a stiff cloth that is used, among other things, for binding reference books.  (Although the buckram binding has a protective purpose, I would have preferred to maintain these books in their original bindings.)  Our rare books include a 1586 edition of Sir Robert Brooke’s “La Graunde Abridgement,” George Webb’s “Virginia Justice,” printed in 1736, and a 1682 edition of Michael Dalton’s “The Countrey Justice.”

What advice do you have for aspiring law librarians?

Especially today, I believe it is necessary to both practice patience in order to find the right opportunity, and also be prepared to act to take advantage of good opportunities when they arise.  Find a role model or a mentor, and be willing to invest time and effort to make the most of that relationship.  It is also very worthwhile to volunteer with professional associations, whether at the local, state, regional, and/or national level.  The experience you obtain doing professional association work will enhance the value you bring to your library and employer, and enable you to develop your professional network.

Comments (2)

  1. What a wonderful article. I live in Richmond, VA and have never been to the Supreme Court of Virginia. It is interesting to note that my fraternity, the Masons (A.F. & A.M.) laid the cornerstone.

    I hope to visit one day. An inspiring account I will remember on my journey to law school.

  2. This incredibly informative article is so indicative of the professionalism and accomplishments of Gail Warren, the State Law Librarian. I have personally observed Gail’s innumerable contributions to the Law Library and to the profession. The state of Virginia is fortunate to be the recipient of her capabilities.

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