In celebration of Women’s History Month, this week’s interview is with Elizabeth Pugh, general counsel of the Library of Congress. Ms. Pugh has had an illustrious legal career in the federal government that spans over thirty years. Prior to joining the Library, she served at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education, Department of Justice, and the National Archives and Records Administration. Ms. Pugh’s federal service exemplifies and honors the 2016 Women’s History Month theme, “ Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.”
Please describe your background.
I grew up in New York and went to college in Massachusetts (University of Massachusetts). When I graduated, I started working for the president of the University, where I first became interested in law and higher education. I then got my masters in higher education and followed that with a JD. My goal was to become a general counsel (GC) of a college or university. Knowing that I was not going to be hired as a GC right out of law school, I moved to Washington, D.C. and began my career with the federal government.
What is your academic and professional history?
I received a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts (Amherst); an M.A. from the Ohio State University in Higher Education Administration; and a J.D. from Cleveland Marshall College of Law, Cleveland State University (CSU). Several years ago I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from CSU recognizing my service and achievement as a public servant.
Throughout my professional career, I have been fortunate to have enjoyed all my positions. For the past 38 years, my career has been with the federal government. For me, working for the federal government has been a privilege and honor. I began my legal career as an attorney with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and then moved to the Department of Education — still thinking my goal was in higher education. Since I had been engaged in litigation matters at both agencies, I opted to join the Department of Justice and held positions of increasing responsibility there as both a litigator and manager representing many of the federal agencies. After leaving the Department of Justice, I served as the general counsel to the National Archives and Records Administration where I played a significant role in the resolution of a case that resulted in the opening of tape recordings made by former President Richard Nixon. And finally, I was selected to be the second general counsel at the Library of Congress, a position I have held for over 18 years.
How would you describe your job to other people?
While it may sound corny, I love my job and working at the Library. The staff, the collections, and the breadth of what the Library does continually amaze me. When I try to describe what I do as the general counsel, I tell people first that I do not pursue people who haven’t returned books — you would be amazed at how often people wonder why and what a lawyer would do at a library. As general counsel, I am responsible for all legal matters in the institution – including staff issues, collection matters, ethics, administrative and financial issues (including legal reviews of contracts) and general legal guidance. The Library is a complex and diverse institution and its legal issues are challenging and always changing. That’s what keeps me interested and engaged. I also have a fabulous staff — which makes my work even more enjoyable.
Why did you want to work in the Library of Congress?
While working at the National Archives, I learned so much about the Library of Congress and when the position opened up to serve as its general counsel, I jumped at the opportunity. It is one of the most fascinating cultural institutions in the world. As I mention to many people who come to my office, I had a truly uplifting experience the end of my first week here. As I was learning about all the Library does, I began to fill a bit overwhelmed. Returning to my office that first week, I was a bit stressed. However, I looked out my window and saw a rainbow over the Jefferson Building. I saw it as a sign that I had made the right decision.
What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the Law Library of Congress?
The most interesting thing that I have learned would be the breadth of the Law Library’s legal collections and the skills and knowledge of the staff. I have had to seek advice from the Law Library on many occasions as general counsel – for example when the Library purchased the 1507 Waldseemuller map from a German prince. I’ve always been impressed with their thorough legal responsiveness. What a treasure for all of us!
What’s something that most of your co-workers do not know you about you?
There are several things that many of my co-workers don’t know about me. I volunteer at the National Zoo in the kid’s farm (although I’m a city kid from NY). I also knit baby blankets for family and friends and I’m an avid competitive tennis player. In addition, I am a long time docent here and love sharing this wonderful institution.