While the Law Library does employ a number of legal reference librarians as well as collections staff and other people that work with our huge book stacks (approximately two American football fields under our building!), there are quite a few of us that don’t have a background in library or information sciences (although I did work at my local library when I was at high school, I’m not sure that really makes me an expert!). This is because part of the role of the Law Library is to provide foreign law research services to, well, just about anyone really…
A team of foreign law specialists helps to locate material in response to requests from researchers, lawyers and other members of the public who need to refer to the laws of different countries. Our primary role, however, is to respond to requests for information about foreign, international and comparative law from Congress (i.e. members, committees, and their staff), as well as executive agencies and courts. It’s a very interesting job and we get asked about all kinds of issues and laws – we really need to have good research skills and be able to understand how different legal systems work, rather than necessarily be a specialist in a particular area of the law.
When I’ve talked to people about where I work and what I do, a common response is that we are “like a mini United Nations.” The foreign law specialists come from about 20 different countries, so there are all kinds of accents and languages spoken around the Law Library, and there are people with really amazing, diverse backgrounds. For example, we have staff that have worked for the courts or executive agencies in their country of origin – including Israel, France, New Zealand, Mexico, and Eritrea – or have been in private practice or taught at law schools in countries such as Russia, China, Argentina, and Lebanon.
Until very recently our “elder statesman” (for lack of a better term – but I see that it can be defined as “any influential person whose advice is highly respected” so I think it’s appropriate) was a legal specialist from Iran who was once a Supreme Court Justice there. He speaks Farsi, Dari, French, Arabic and Pashto – and even had a Farsi typewriter in his office! He has now retired after more than 40 years of service in the U.S. government. We all hope that he’s enjoying more time with his family and generally not having to hang out in an office all day, although I doubt that he’s able to give his incredible brain much of a rest!