The Baltimore bar Library's Venable Moose Room houses the original conference
table of the law firm of Venable, Baetjerr & Howard.
One-hundred-and-seventy years after its founding, the Baltimore Bar Library (www.barlib.org) today stands as much a fixture of Baltimore’s legal community as the city’s venerable Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., Courthouse, where the Library’s collections have resided since 1900.
“First and foremost, the Library seeks to provide its members with the collections and services they need to most effectively carry forth their practices,” explains Joseph W. Bennett, Library Director for the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar. But, Bennett notes, “what has changed is the means by which that mission is advanced.”
“Even though the Library seeks to preserve the elegance of the past,” he notes, “we are fully aware of the needs of the present.” This is perhaps no more immediately evident than in the presence of such modern necessities as ubiquitous Wi-Fi access amidst the Bar Library’s barrel-vault ceilings, ornamental wainscoting and hardwood floors.
businesses are around for 170 years, so I suppose the Bar Library must be doing something right.
JOSEPH W. BENNETT
Library Director for the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar
The determination to provide members with the tools necessary for meeting the ever-changing demands of practicing law dates to the Bar Library’s very inception in 1840, when a young Baltimore attorney named George William Brown first proposed to his colleagues the necessity for a non-circulating, subscription-based law library. (Two decades later, as the city’s mayor, Brown would personally escort the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment through town when it came under mob-attack as the nation plunged into Civil War.)
“[Brown] recognized the need for a source of legal reference open to members of the bar who lacked funds to establish libraries of their own,” the Honorable James F. Schneider wrote in his 1979 history “The Story of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar”. For a one-time “initiation fee” of $20, plus $10 in yearly dues, the Bar Library’s first members received access to its resources. True to that mission, today’s members – approximately 825 strong, ranging from sole practitioners to members of large firms – pay $200 annually (half that for government and public-interest attorneys) “to borrow any book in the Library’s collections, as well as free and unlimited Westlaw,” Bennett says.
Today, evolving technologies also enable the Library to expand its scope beyond its traditional confines. “With technology, distance is not as determinative as it was just a few years ago,” says Bennett, noting that the Bar Library counts an increasing number of attorneys from outlying counties among its ranks. Moreover, “we can provide our members with exponentially more information than at any point in our history. The Library’s catalog is online, allowing members to determine what the Library has without leaving their offices. The Library can not only fax material, it also has scanning capabilities, allowing any material in its collections or in one of its expansive databases to be sent to any member, anywhere, electronically.”
But by its very nature, the Bar Library’s progressive heritage has never been limited to the technological. “In 1840, when the government could not, or would not, create a law library for the lawyers of Baltimore, those lawyers did it themselves,” Bennett explains. “In 1886, when unfathomable discrimination was being leveled against African-Americans, the Bar Library welcomed Everett J. Waring, the first African-American admitted to the practice of law in Maryland, to the ranks of membership, a full two years before he was admitted to the Bar of Maryland. And in 1902, the first woman admitted to practice in Maryland, Etta Haynie Maddox, became a member of the Bar Library, four days after she was admitted to practice.”
In recent years, the Bar Library has broadened its spectrum of services and activities to include an ongoing lecture series, featuring such dignitaries as former Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer. In addition, various rooms may be rented for events ranging from press conferences to private receptions.
The Library’s monthly film series has proven particularly popular, according to Bennett, screening “everything from Judgment at Nuremberg to Miracle on 34th Street.”
“At any given film you might be sitting next to a judge, law student or prominent member of the Bar,” he adds. “It’s a great way to bring the whole of the legal community together to share camaraderie and fun” – and one more way in which the Baltimore Bar Library continues to thrive after nearly two centuries.
“Whatever [our members] need, we will do our very best to see that they get it,” Bennett says. “Not many businesses are around for 170 years, so I suppose the Bar Library must be doing something right.”