When Hugh Chaplin of Bangor graduated from Colby in 1880, the budding lawyer set out to forge his way in a world and time vastly different from our own.
Rather than automobiles, there were railroads and horse-drawn conveyances. Gas lamps lit the night because electricity had yet to come into widespread use. And the radio was still decades away from being invented.
Education mattered, though, and so did libraries. That’s still true today.
Chaplin, the son of a Union Army officer killed in action in the Civil War, did well for himself. He became a prominent probate and trust attorney who served as general counsel for the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad, and his 1935 death made the front page of the Bangor Daily News.
In his life, he was generous. In 1931 Chaplin made an anonymous gift of $750 for each member of the Class of 1880 for the benefit of the new Colby campus. The College used the $15,000 sum, worth about $332,000 today, to build roads on Mayflower Hill.
Chaplin, who had no children, was generous in his will, too. On his death, his money was held in trust for the benefit of his wife, and upon her death, it was held in trust for another relative for the duration of their life. What remained was to be distributed evenly between Colby and the Penobscot County Law Library at the courthouse in Bangor.
Colby put its share of the money to good use, but the clarity of Chaplin’s original intent regarding the law library was blurred by the years. The fund was kept safe in various banks, and even as it grew over time—it’s now worth about $200,000—the library got little of it.
Now, though, the gift has been shifted into an endowment at the Maine Community Foundation with the explicit purpose of sustaining the law library. Nearly 90 years after his death, Chaplin’s wishes have finally come true.
The move happened in the nick of time, according to Hunter Umphrey, president of the Penobscot County Bar Association. He said that the library has been in danger of closing due to insufficient operating funds.
“There’s been incredible financial pressure on this library,” he said. “The gift is a total game-changer.”
‘Books were a big deal’
Long ago, county law libraries served a critical role in the pursuit of justice. In 1780, when Maine was still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Revolutionary War was still being fought, access to free legal information was guaranteed by the Massachusetts state constitution’s Declaration of Rights.
In Chaplin’s day, every county in Maine had a law library, complete with a state stipend to purchase up-to-date copies of legal statutes. For many years, the county law libraries were busy places where attorneys, judges, defendants, law clerks, students, and other private citizens could examine case laws, sometimes dashing in during a break in a court proceeding to look something up, said Judith Bennett, the longtime librarian at the Penobscot County Law Library.
“The books were really a big deal back then,” she said. “It’s just completely different now.”
And recently, as the cost to run the library went up but the state stipend for it did not, there hasn’t been enough money to stay afloat, Umphrey said.
“There were these huge balances, and we’d get them back to close to zero, and then it would go back up again,” he said.
The situation wasn’t sustainable.
When Umphrey was elected president of the bar association early last year, the longtime treasurer of the group told him about the financial struggles, and also about the gift that the long-ago Bangor attorney had left to the library.
“And it was not helping as much as it could,” Umphrey said.
The bank that originally held Chaplin’s money had been swallowed up by a bigger entity, a scenario that repeated over the years.
“There have been so many different local banks bought by larger national ones in this kind of Russian-nesting doll situation, which was part of the issue,” Umphrey said.
At the bank where the money ended up, no one had a great understanding of where it had come from or what it was for, Umphrey said. Bankers, therefore, were very cautious with distributions to the law library, even as the principal grew.
“I don’t think it was ever [Chaplin’s] intent to have a ballooning pot of gold that wasn’t being shared with the library,” the attorney said.
With the advent of the internet, the importance of printed legal statutes has declined precipitously. Nowadays, most lawyers subscribe to a service like Westlaw or LexisNexis to access up-to-date case laws and statutes on their computers or smartphones.
County law libraries have changed, too. In Maine, only Bangor and Portland still have existing county law libraries, Umphrey said. The Cleaves Law Library is located at the Cumberland County Courthouse and has a multi-million-dollar endowment.
“You walk in there and it’s this kind of opulent library palace,” he said. “We’re in a very different situation here.”
The Penobscot County Law Library is tucked into a small, quiet corner on an upstairs floor of the Penobscot Judicial Center on Exchange Street in Bangor. The towering brick-and-glass structure was built in 2009 to replace the century-old Penobscot County Courthouse and the Bangor District Court building, located in a former grocery store.
In the new courthouse’s law library, there are still case law books on hand, but the more important feature is the computers with access to subscription services Westlaw and LexisNexis. It’s expensive but necessary, and in fact, members of the all-volunteer bar association often found themselves in the tough position of calling the subscription services to ask them not to turn off the library’s access, promising that the check was in the mail.
“To run this tiny, very modest library, I think costs around $30,000 a year,” Umphrey said. “And the lion’s share of that goes to Westlaw and Lexis.”
Last year, when the bar association considered the dire step of closing the library for lack of funding, Umphrey and others made a serious effort to right the ship. It seemed to him that the bank and the bar association had a different perception of the funds and how they could be used. The two entities found themselves at loggerheads, with the bank maintaining that the association would need a court order to free up more of the principal.
“We started canvassing anyone in the state who’s got a read on the whole law-library situation,” he said.
One of those people is Matt Pollack, an attorney who is the clerk of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and who also has a great interest in law libraries. Pollack’s wife, Jane Quirion, an attorney with expertise in trusts and estates, offered to do some consulting pro bono on behalf of the library and the bar association.
“She thought we should be able to set this up in a way that effectuates Mr. Chaplin’s clear intent to benefit the library and get it out of these dire straits,” Umphrey said.
A happy ending
That is ultimately what happened, thanks to the efforts of Quirion and others who worked to find a friendly resolution with the bank. With no court order required, the funds were shifted to the Maine Community Foundation.
Every year, a portion of the interest earned from the fund will be used to support the law library. That, plus the state stipend, should cover the expenses and allow the library to continue to operate.
“Now we really are at a break-even point,” Umphrey said. “I think we’re in a really good place.”
What’s next for the library is figuring out how to attract more users to the library. As well, they want to make sure that modern-day people don’t forget about the man who made this kind of future possible.
“We also are looking into naming the library after Mr. Chaplin,” he said. “It seems like it would be appropriate.”
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