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An Interview with Edith Palmer, Senior Foreign Law Specialist

This week’s interview is with Edith Palmer, Senior Foreign Law Specialist at the Law Library of Congress, who covers the German-speaking countries of Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.  She has been providing research and reference for the U.S. Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Judiciary since she joined the Law Library in 1976.  In addition to her native German, Edith is proficient in reading the Romance languages (French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, and Spanish).  She has also written reports on German law available on our website covering a number of topics including habeas corpus, medical malpractice liability, campaign finance, and children’s rights.

What is your academic/professional history?

I spent my formative years in Austria where I graduated as a Juris Doctor from the University of Vienna.  I am grateful to my Austrian law school because it gave me a broad-based legal education that included much legal history and philosophy as well as courses in economics and political science.  I then encountered the nitty-gritty of applying the law when clerking for an Austrian judge.

After coming to the United States, I studied American law at the National Law Center of the George Washington University.  I am grateful to my American law school because it showed me the creativity judge-made law offers under the stimulus of an adversarial system.  After graduating as a Master of Comparative Law/American Practice, I passed the D.C. Bar exam and became a member.

How would you describe your job to other people?

My job has many facets. My first priority is to satisfy the foreign law needs of the U.S. Congress.  Members and Committee staff often want to know about foreign law for legislative purposes, to learn something from what other countries are doing or to avoid mistakes that other countries have made.  My second priority is to be responsive to the foreign law needs of the Executive Branch of Government.  Agencies often need to know about foreign law in order to deal with an ongoing problem or a potential conflict. The Judiciary also comes to us for information on foreign law.

Last but not least, I give reference assistance to the public at large, and included in this vast grouping are librarians, lawyers, scholars, and private individuals, not only from the United States but also from other countries.  It is astounding how many people from all walks of life need information on the laws of other countries, both current and past, and it is rewarding to be able to assist them in their quest for information.

I could not fulfill all these obligations if I did not have the excellent collections of the Law Library at my fingertips.  To maintain and develop these is perhaps my most noble calling.  I am rewarded for my efforts whenever a patron comes to me and I am able to recommend just what he needs from our vast and highly specialized collections.

Why did you want to work at the Law Library?

I fell in love with the Law Library when I first visited there to conduct research for a term paper. I was amazed at the breadth and depth of the collections that spanned from antiquity to the present.  I also was impressed by the knowledgeable and very helpful staff that guided me very expertly on a variety of issues ranging from international law to the latest German court decisions on corporation law.

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

I find it amazing how the Law Library adapts to the needs of its patrons while remaining true to its custodial mission.  I never cease to wonder about the foresight that the founders of the Law Library showed, a hundred and fifty years ago, in collecting the laws, treatises, and court decisions from around the globe.  Currently, the Law Library is in the process of expanding on this global mission with information available through various web-based services.

My own work is mostly request-driven, and we respect the confidentiality of our requesters.  I am rarely at liberty to talk about on-going projects but I can talk about work that my requesters have published.  In recent years I had the opportunity to coordinate several multinational studies on tax law.

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

In my spare time I enjoy nature and music.  As long as I have these, I don’t think I could ever be unhappy.

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