Law Library of Congress: An Interview with Mary Searles, the New Hampshire State Law Librarian

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.

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