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An Interview with Mary Searles, the New Hampshire State Law Librarian

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Today’s interview is with Mary Searles, the Law Librarian and director of the New Hampshire Law Library

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

I have been the Law Librarian and director at the John W. King New Hampshire Law Library for nearly 18 years. I have a Master’s in library science from Simmons and a B.A. in music performance from the University of New Hampshire (Go Wildcats!).

What do you know about your predecessors?

Not a great deal. My immediate predecessor was Christine Swan, a fine librarian whose policies, even 18 years later, are the foundation upon which I run the library today. Before Chris, I am afraid that I know some of the names but little about them.

I know you serve many different types of patrons. How does it break down on a rough percentage basis?

It is about 50/50 between those who are in the legal profession and those who are not. We do have narrower categories: court patrons, inmates, patrons who work for other branches of government, private attorneys, and the general public, but the broad split is 50/50.

Have you received any memorable questions that you may discuss?

There are one or two that have stuck with me. I have had a lot of practice compiling legislative histories over the years so I can generally speed right through these. However, there was one request for a history of New Hampshire’s tort reform law from the 1980s that was so complicated that it took me three days to trace. The law clerk who asked me for help on the question still apologizes when he sees me. What made it even more memorable was that a little while after I had finished the legislative history, I happened to be talking to an attorney who filled me in on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that went on in the legislature to get that tort reform law passed. That legislative history was eye-opening. If you are paying attention you can learn a lot and — though no law clerk has ever believed me when I tell them this in trainings — they are a lot of fun to put together.

Another question from years ago was about whether or not dentists had to provide copies of dental records. Believe it or not, it took two law librarians to find the statute. That question resulted in a NH Law About article on Copies of Dental Records as well as a suggestion to the editor of the NH Revised Statutes Annotated about adding a new entry to the index — which I am pleased to say they did! [Word of advice, get to know the editors of your state’s publications if you can, they are very knowledgeable and helpful. We used to invite the Revised Statutes Annotated editors to our now-sadly-defunct local law library association meetings and they would talk about how the publications were put together. Great stuff!]

These are not questions but there have been many people over the years who needed more than I or any law librarian could offer. I think about them sometimes and hope that having someone listen to them was of some comfort even though I could not give much practical help.

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

I do not think I am a good person to ask for advice. I may be expelled from the American Association of Law Libraries after revealing this, but I never took a single course on law librarianship nor do I have a law degree.  I intended to be a music cataloger and I begrudged the time spent on anything except cataloging courses. I was never going to manage other people and I was never going to talk to another person about their legal problems again (I had worked in legal services programs for the New Hampshire Bar Association before going to library school). I am now a law library director, do very little cataloging (but I miss it!), and hear about nothing but other people’s legal problems. I do not know if there are courses that will be of help, but if you are planning on being a library director rather than stumbling into it accidentally as I did, learn all you can about funding, the budget process, and the governance of institutions. For the rest, as my career illustrates, you never know where you are going to end up even if you have a specialty that you want to concentrate on, so be flexible and take as broad an array of courses as you can manage so that you can take advantage of any opportunity that comes up.

Handwritten manuscript from the mid 1700's.
Justice of the Peace manuscript from the mid-1700s. Photograph courtesy of Mary Searles.

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

The Law Library has several collections of rare New Hampshire materials. They include docket books – most of them handwritten – going back to the early 1700’s; Justice of the Peace manuscripts from the mid-1700s; and New Hampshire Supreme Court case files dating back to 1849. The case files are now undergoing conservation and digitization at Northeast Document Conservation Center and we hope to do the same for the docket books and manuscripts. I am most interested in the docket books. A few years ago, New Hampshire Associate Justice James Bassett asked us to create a “Wall of Judges” in the Law Library to display likenesses of all the New Hampshire Supreme Court judges since 1776. Many of the docket books in the Law Library were written by those same judges whose lives I researched for the display and they contain details that I am not sure could be found in many other places.

A wall of photographs of New Hampshire Supreme Court judges since 1776.
The “Wall of Judges” featuring New Hampshire Supreme Court judges since 1776. Photo courtesy of Mary Searles.

Do you work closely with the New Hampshire Court of Appeals?

Yes, we do. In New Hampshire, the Supreme Court is the state’s only appellate court and the Law Library is housed in the Supreme Court building. Up until the late 1960’s, the court sat in the State Library building in downtown Concord. When a separate Supreme Court building was built, the Law Division of the State Library (as we were then known) moved with the court and eventually was brought under the administration of the judicial branch. The five justices of the Supreme Court are, in a way, the Law Library’s board of trustees and I report to the “library judge” who is now Associate Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi. In addition to working with the Supreme Court, the Law Library staff manages the acquisition of print and electronic legal resources for the trial courts and provides research support and training to court personnel when needed.

Can you name some highlights of your tenure at the Law Library?

I have to start by saying that during my time as director the library has never had more than four people on staff at one time and we have usually had fewer than that. None of what I am about to boast about could have been done without their effort and dedication and that of the many volunteers – usually law students and retired librarians – who have helped us. Also, there have been several library judges over my tenure and we could not have accomplished so much without their and the court’s support.

I am very proud of the work we have done with public libraries. My predecessor, Chris Swan, taught classes on legal reference to public librarians and we continue that work. The Law Library is now providing Westlaw access and training for librarians in selected public libraries so that researchers can access accurate and reliable legal information closer to home and at more convenient hours than the Law Library can provide. Also, in this state, law librarians are appointed by the Supreme Court to the Access to Justice Commission. Susan Zago, director of the UNH Law School Library, and I have served for several years and the work with public librarians is now intersecting with Commission projects on user-friendly courts, which is very exciting.

It took far too long, but we completely revamped the way we dealt with requests from New Hampshire inmates. When we took a good look, we realized that the rules we imposed were intended to keep inmates out rather than to provide access. We dropped document delivery fees entirely and we work with the Department of Corrections librarians to provide legal resources in the prison libraries. I do sometimes get behind in answering letters – especially between semesters when I do not have law students to assist – but I think this is one of the most valuable services we provide here.

We created the NH Law About website, now a LibGuide, where we provide not only the standard research guides but also help with those very mundane questions (like copies of dental records) that trip people up. I stole the idea from the wonderful Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries – thank you, Massachusetts. And, since I am confessing, the current design of our site, though now using a different font and color scheme, was in fact inspired by the Research Guides of the Law Library of Congress.

And finally, our library judge, Justice Hantz Marconi, has really led the effort in the past couple of years to get our rare materials conserved, digitized, and safely housed. These are unique artifacts of New Hampshire history and while we are a long way from being finished, we have made a good start.

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