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An Interview with Margaret Wood, Legal Reference Specialist

This week’s interview is with Margaret Wood, a Legal Reference Specialist in the Public Services Division.

Describe your background.

I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, where my father, a solid state theoretical physicist, taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  When I was five we moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where my dad went to work for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) now the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  This was over 20 years after the development of the Atomic Bomb so, although it was an interesting place to grow up, we were not in a position to have Oppenheimer or Teller over for dinner.

On Mars Hill in front of the Acropolis

What is your academic/professional history?

I went to college at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, where I had a triple major in classics, religion, and medieval history, which I studied under Dr. Marcia Colish.  I had intended to be a brilliant history professor but after college I took off for New York City where I became a paralegal with the firm of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler.  After a few years I applied to graduate school and came to Washington, D.C., to attend George Washington University.  But the difference of experience in both attending and working at a large university instead of a small college led me to re-evaluate whether or not I wanted to be an academic.  After some reflection I realized my mother had suggested years ago that I should become a librarian and I enrolled in The Catholic University’s School of Library and Information Science.  I took a number of courses in law librarianship but in my final semester was seduced away to the world of cataloging as taught by Dr. Ingrid Hsieh-Yee.

My first 6-7 years of librarianship included working as a cataloguer on a variety of projects, including cataloging photographs for the Public Health Service Historian’s Office and the NIH History Office. I also ran the technical services department at the Virginia Theological Seminary.  Because the VTS staff was so small, we all took turns at the reference desk and I realized how much I enjoy doing reference work.  I moved onto working at a law firm reclassifying their collection and doing reference, and then spent two years as the sole librarian for the United States Coast Guard in their law library.

How would you describe your job to other people?

As several of my colleagues have mentioned, it is a hard job to describe.  I often talk about the work we do with public patrons who have pro se complaints or launch into a description of the challenges of legislative history at friends’ dinner parties.  But I think the characteristic that would describe this job would be how busy – even hectic – it is: from answering patron questions in a variety of formats; to working on the Reading Room collections; creating exhibits for the Reading Room; giving briefings and presentations to visitors; mentoring my colleague Matt Braun; and on one occasion analyzing the work of a legal medieval scholar.  Many of the people I know still think of the librarian as someone who sits quietly dispensing information at a measured pace – we are not those librarians!

Why did you want to work at the Law Library of Congress?

One of my adjunct professors at Catholic University was Pamela Barnes Craig who encouraged my interest in law librarianship.  She urged me to consider working at the Law Library.  While I enjoyed my work at the U.S. Coast Guard, being a sole librarian was a little isolating and the chance to work at the largest law library in the world was an inspiring challenge.  This is a job in which I utilize most of the skills and knowledge I have acquired over the years.  It is a job that stretches and challenges me on a daily basis and gives me the opportunity to learn new things both about the law and my own skills.

What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the Law Library?

This is a hard question to answer because I find so much of the Law Library’s history and collections to be interesting.  I think the thing that strikes me the most is that we collect many of our items in multiple formats: we have copies of Congressional bills in paper and in microfiche, and Congressional reports, hearings, prints and documents in paper, microfiche and now also through some of our subscription databases.  Yet at the same time, certain materials are only available in one format, such as historical Executive Orders and Proclamations which are only available in microfiche.

What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?

I am passionately fond of children’s literature.  I took several courses in children’s literature while I was in library school and still read and collect children’s books, particularly Young Adult fiction.  If I ever retire I think would to like to work part-time in a public library’s children’s room in New Mexico.

13 Comments

  1. Ruth Paget
    July 6, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Reference has become more interesting I think in the Internet Age yet I don’t think public librarians are doing enough to teach the public how to search the Internet or databases as well as they could. Boolean search terms make it much easier to narrow down material that you are looking for, but the public does not know exactly how they operate. Is this also true in law librarianship?

  2. Margaret Wood
    July 6, 2011 at 10:42 am

    I would agree that teaching the public how to do Boolean searching is an important component of the work we do. However, we face the additional challenge of having a specialized vocabulary which we use: torts, contracts, estoppel, temporary restraining order … This makes our work with the public more complex because we need to help them perform more sophisticated searches and learn the relevant legal terms. This also makes the reference interview a critical part of our interaction because we have to get enough information from the patron to “translate” their inquiry into legal terminology and then begin assisting them in their research. Luckily many common legal reference resources have detailed indexes which helps all of us – reference staff and patrons alike in this endeavor.

  3. Stephanie Deutsch
    July 6, 2011 at 10:50 am

    What a fascinating interview. I have used many LC services — Main Reading Room, Periodicals, Prints and Photos, Manuscript Division. If I ever have to use the Law Library I know I’ll be in good hands with Margaret Wood!

  4. Susan Carlson
    July 6, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Great interview, Margaret. And I’m here to attest to the fact that you are “not your garden variety librarian” — you have been an amazing resource for the arcane and the novel…and you are an always valued dinner partner! In the Information Age, it is wonderful to have a Master resource.

  5. Sarah Wood
    July 6, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Who is this articulate and learned person? Why, it’s my sister!

  6. David Deutsch
    July 6, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    When I read your bio, I am struck by how a wide variety of interests and knowledge can lead to a relatively narrow field that requires a wide variety of interests and knowledge in order to be successful.

  7. Grace Aspinall
    July 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    How wonderful!! This gives others an insight into another part of the Library of Congress that some of us (ok, I mean me!) didn’t know existed. I’ve known Margaret for years and always have been impressed with her as a person, but now I have a new found awe for her in her profession. I especially enjoyed her love of children’s literature; I intend to bend her ear and get her insights on the subject the next time I see her. Thanks for the article.

  8. Karen Eutsler Little
    July 6, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Fascinating! So great to catch up with you, Margaret! You do amazing work, it’s obvious! **applause**

  9. Anne Kelly
    July 6, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Very good interview. I thought I had a basic understanding of what you do but now I have a much greater understanding of your expertise. I am very impressed! Oh, and I love the picture!

  10. John Barton
    July 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    What an interesting interview. Before reading this I only knew what you do at St. Mark’s, which is quite amazing enough. Knowing the excellent work you do as a librarian — with your usual energy, commitment, insight and drive — is impressive indeed. Congratulations, and keep up the good work!

  11. Marilu Sherer
    July 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    I found this interview eye-opening. I am glad to understand what you do more fully especially in context with your background. Brava!

  12. Janice Genevro
    July 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    It was fascinating to learn more about your work and get a glimpse behind the scenes at the Library. A thoroughly interesting interview!

  13. Doug Lucius
    July 8, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    Very interesting biography. Now I know who to request legal information from. Like the picture of Greece, too.

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