Outreach Services Law Librarian
Maryland State Law Library
A library seems an odd place to find someone with a double degree in English and fine arts, but Dee Van Nest has infused her 39-year career at the State Law Library with the benefits of both. Dee has long been the point-person for fliers, signs, brochures, and exhibits, but when she retires at the end of April, she will take with her that fine arts expertise, as well as a deep institutional knowledge and thorough understanding of the sources of old English law that the Law Library staff has depended on for years.
Dee started her Judiciary career in Spring 1972, when the State Law Library was housed in the old Court of Appeals building in downtown Annapolis on the site of the current Department of Legislative Services building. She distinctly remembers the glass floors on the second and third floors as “scary — it took a while to get used to walking on them.” The building, she recalls, had lots of wrought iron and marble, and stayed cool in the summer. She didn’t get to enjoy the glass and wrought iron for long, though. A few months after starting the job, in August 1972, the Library, along with the Court, moved into its current location on Rowe Boulevard. Dee designed the organizational system to move all of the books, with the help of a phalanx of college students. “It was fun,” she says. “Everyone pitched in, and we really enjoyed ourselves.”
Dee’s expertise in English law sources began when she was asked to assist in a search for a 1713 English statute under Queen Anne, dealing with breaking out as opposed to breaking and entering. Having studied Chaucer in college, Dee enjoyed the British writing, and decided to learn everything she could about the English legal system to be better prepared for similar questions in the future. “Over the years,” Dee says, “the knowledge has come in handy.”
Over Dee’s four decades here, there have been many changes in how the Library looks, functions, and serves its customers. Of all the technology changes, though, Van Nest says, “the neatest thing was Lexis.” In the late 1970s, shortly after Mike Miller joined the Library as director, the Library got its first Lexis connection, a single machine that was kept in one of the side offices. When a judge or law clerk needed a Lexis search run, either Mike or Dee would structure the search and run it on the stand-alone machine. “Searches weren’t cheap,” Dee says, “you paid by the minute. It was important to be careful and proficient, to keep the cost down.” Lexis was such a big deal that a local television network filmed Dee doing a search for the evening news.
One of Dee’s biggest challenges, and one of her most rewarding projects, was the design of the Library’s Special Collections Room and the preservation and display of the Library’s collection of John James Audubon’s Birds of America elephant folio prints. Dee worked closely with the Baltimore-based company that designed the display case and the Philadelphia-based preservation group that restored the Birds to their now-glorious state. The Birds are displayed at the front of the Library, one or two at a time. For the last several years, it has been Dee’s pleasure and privilege to choose the next prints for display, carefully don the requisite white gloves, and rotate the birds.
Like her recently retired colleague Bernice Bernstein, Dee remembers the Library as a place people visited often. Today, she says, most of the Library’s patrons call or email for assistance rather than coming in person. She knew most of the appellate judges, law clerks, and local attorneys by sight as well as by name. She misses those face-to-face interactions, though she admits much of the technology is more convenient for users.
Dee doesn’t plan to just sit back and relax in retirement. She will continue to show her favorite Irish Wolfhounds (her current furry love is Rhett), and will spend more time working with therapeutic riding, assisting children with special needs, at a stable in Crownsville. She is also, as always, continuing her cooking and canning, with plans to perhaps do some teaching in that area. And most importantly, she looks forward to extra quality time with her grandson, Sam.
“The best part of the job has been the intellectual challenge. It’s never boring,” Dee says. “No matter how long you work in a law library, you will always encounter a question that you have never researched. What could be better than that?”