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An Interview with Steven Anderson, the Maryland State Law Librarian

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Today’s interview is with Steven Anderson, the director of the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library in Maryland

How long have you been the State Law Librarian and what is your educational background?  

I have been the State Law Librarian for 16 years, since 2005. I am originally from California, and I went to college at UC Berkeley. I became interested in environmental policy, so next I headed east, to the University of Maryland School of Law. Finally, because I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up, I went to get my master of arts in library science at the University of Arizona.

What do you know about your predecessors?

We know quite a bit, actually. Michael “Mike” Miller, my immediate predecessor and Maryland’s first state “law” librarian, was the director for 28 years before my arrival. He was honored with the American Association of Law Libraries’ Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award in 2005. Before him, Nelson Molter joined the Library in 1932, as cataloger, and then between 1959 and 1977, he served as state librarian. Fortunately, you can read about much of the State Library in “A history of the Maryland State Library, 1827-1939” You will note on page 46 that Anne Burton Jeffries became Maryland’s first woman to hold public office in 1896 when she became the state librarian. We continue to hold some correspondence between the first librarian, David Ridgely, and John James Audubon on the subject of the Library’s acquisition of Audubon’s “Birds of America” prints, which the Library still owns.

I know you serve many different types of patrons and that approximately 80% of your users are members of the public. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the type of services you are providing to the public? 

The Library has been replying via e-mail to nearly every reference interaction it has received since the beginning of the pandemic. From March to June 2020, the staff provided 100% virtual reference assistance from home. Maryland Judiciary’s Phase II operations ended on March 14, 2021. During that time, most of the staff came in every day, which allowed us to have some telephone and person-to-person interchanges. However, we still provided e-mail reference only on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturdays, when we used to be open. Starting Monday, March 15, 2021, the Library resumed normal operating hours. Our e-mail reference form, which is hyperlinked on our People’s Law Library website, has seen a dramatic increase in use over the past year.

Have you received any memorable questions that you may discuss?

We keep track of patrons’ “thank you” messages, but one occasion in particular springs to mind. I don’t exactly know what the question was, but the upshot was that I happened to be at the reference desk when a teary-eyed woman arrived at the Library. She noticed one of my staff members who had assisted her the previous day, and she started weeping while thanking her for her help in a custody matter regarding the woman’s children. The patron said that she just needed to come by and thank my staff member in-person for her assistance because it meant so much to her. I was astonished, and since then I have thought that the outcome is better than the initial question any day.

Do you have any advice for aspiring law librarians in terms of the courses they should take?

Yes, I think they should take any classes that deal with digitization and metadata. Assembling a budget also is a crucial skill.

Do you have a collection of rare materials? What are some of the items in that collection that you find most interesting?

Hand-colored half-length portrait print of Wesh-Cubb, a Chippeway chief,
Hand-colored half-length portrait print of Wesh-Cubb, a Chippeway chief. Photo courtesy of Steven Anderson.

Yes, we have a Special Collections Room that houses most of our pre-1850 and other unique holdings. Most interesting to me at least, is an early 17th century volume of Coke’s Reports, which is written in three languages: Latin, English and “Law French.” One can actually see the development of “black letter law” in the typography of these old works. It’s fascinating that some of our collection was written before Virginia became a colony. We also have scores of Thomas Jefferson’s signed Acts of Congress, 1789-1791, when he was Secretary of State.  Another classic American work that we have is the History of the Indian Tribes of North America, by Thomas L. McKenney and James Hall, from 1837. Like the Audubon prints, the pictures are all hand colored. The most recent discovery, which led us to become the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library, was locating Marshall’s signature in the Library’s patron log from 1934.

A close-up of a block of handwritten text, with Thurgood Marshall's signature highlighted.
Signature of Thurgood Marshall in the 1934 visitor log of the Maryland State Library. Photo courtesy of Steven Anderson.

Do you have a favorite “Birds of America” print or piece?

Right now, we have the ivory-billed woodpecker on display. Although like most people, I expect, I am a huge fan of the flamingo.

Does Maryland have any strange or unusual laws?

Perhaps our most unusual state law pertains to “ground rent.” From our People’s Law Library website:

Nearly unique to the Greater-Baltimore area, ground rent is a periodic monetary payment by a tenant to a ground leaseholder who holds a reversionary interest in the property or “ground” underneath a home. Specific terms and conditions are contingent on the actual language of the ground lease, but such leases often require payment from the lessee (homeowner) of between $50-150 per year, commonly paid in semi-annual installments. In practical effect, a homeowner who is subject to a ground rent must make payment to a ground leaseholder for the right to dwell on the property. Full and timely payment to the leaseholder ensures this right perpetually, or until the lease expires and is not renewed.” One still has to pay attention to make sure a Baltimore area property is held in “fee simple” if searching for a home.

Do you work closely with the Maryland Court of Appeals?

Yes, we do. The Law Library is on the first floor of the Courts of Appeal Building, which houses Maryland’s second highest court, the Court of Special Appeals, and Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. There is no such thing as the Maryland Supreme Court. We frequently assist judicial law clerks and judges of both courts.

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