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An Interview with Don Simon, Assistant Law Librarian for Operations and Planning

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Kelly and I stopped by Don’s office for the interview a few days ago.  I can honestly say I learned a lot during the interview (in addition to the fact that we both started here about the same time six and a half years ago).  Don is the Assistant Law Librarian for Operations and Planning, which is a relatively new position for the Law Library of Congress (and for him as well).  He was previously our Financial and Planning Officer.

Don Simon standing on the Great Wall of China, with mountains and more of the wall in the background.Describe your background.

I have been with the Law Library now for over six years, and I’ve been managing the budget and the contracting function ever since I came on board.

I hail from the Boston area, that’s where I was raised.  Washington, DC was the geographic location that I came to after graduate school.  I came here and never left.  Even though my origin is Boston, I’ve actually spent many more years of my life here in the Washington, DC metropolitan area than I actually did in the Boston area.

I made a very concerted effort when I came to the Washington, DC area to minimize my Boston accent.  I think it’s probably still detectable.  It was a conscious effort on my part to try and disguise it as much as I possibly could.  Not because there was any degree of shame or perceived dissatisfaction with that, it’s just that it would immediately turn the conversation to Boston.  I didn’t think I needed to be the center of the topic of conversation.

What is your academic/professional history?

I hail from an entrepreneurial family.  My Dad was an entrepreneur and a very successful business person.  He owned a number of businesses.  At that time, I wanted to be like Dad so I went to a business school for my undergraduate degree, Babson College, in the Boston area.  I was exposed only to the business discipline.  There was no other degree offered.  Whatever career decision I made in high school, I was stuck with in undergraduate school.

After college, I wanted to expand my horizons and wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into the business area or not.  I decided to expand my horizons by joining the Peace Corps.  I went overseas for three years and served in two countries: Nicaragua and Ecuador.  As a result of that, I was able to pretty comfortably learn a foreign language, Spanish.  I’m still near fluent in that language.

That experience influenced my next career choice: to pursue a Master’s degree in a field called agricultural economics.  It was directly related to the work I ended up doing in the Peace Corps.  I wanted to continue working with a business entity known as cooperatives.  I had spent my years in the Peace Corps working with farmers and other rural citizens informing and sustaining cooperatives.  I wanted to learn more about that so I followed a degree program in that.

My first job after graduate school was exactly what I did in the Peace Corps, but in the United States.  I was a cooperative development specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working with farmers primarily in the South to help them form cooperatives and promote themselves to lending institutions.

I left that job for an opportunity to work with the Department of Defense on the only agricultural project that they had.  The prime contractor was a Native American community.  It was the only contract the U.S. Department of Defense had with an Indian tribe.  It was called the Guayule Rubber Project.  I was the economist on the project.  Then I had successive jobs managing various projects for the Department of Defense.

I stayed there until I went to the Department of the Treasury as a strategic planner.  I had ended up being the go-to person for strategic planning at my previous jobs.  I got a call from the Law Library of Congress asking if I’d like to interview for a job after only two months at the Department of the Treasury.  The job here at the Library of Congress included not only planning but also managing the agency budget.

How would you describe your job to other people?

It’s actually rather difficult initially to convey in a few words what the job entails.  I usually say that I’m responsible for administrative operations.  I think a lot of folks look at administration and see the word clerical in there and don’t think of all the operational and infrastructure support functions that are included.  I usually have to elaborate and go beyond that.  I actually have to define what I mean about administrative operations.  Budget, contracting, personnel, IT, strategic planning are the primary functions of the office.

Why did you want to work at the Law Library?

I didn’t know much about the Law Library.  I did some research to prepare for the interview.  I didn’t even know that Congress had its own Law Library, that Congress is able to depend on federal employees for maintaining a collection of legal material and provide legal research.

What attracted me after I got here was the diversity of its staff and the diversity of its clientele.  Even though I had a long federal career at that point, I hadn’t been exposed to a federal agency that had such a large component of foreign-born and foreign-trained staff among its ranks.  Coming from a background where I lived overseas and worked in a multicultural setting, that was attractive to me.

The diversity of the clientele was something else that really surprised me.  The fact that the Law Library of Congress was able to not only service Congress, but service the Executive branch, the Judicial branch, and the general public as well was surprising to me especially considering its very limited staff and resources.  If the organization can do all that, then that’s something I want to be a part of.

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

I alluded to a job I had as a cooperative development specialist for the Department of Agriculture.  I was there during a time of some significant budget cuts across government.  The proposed budget was zeroed out by OMB and that could have happened if the appropriators hadn’t turned it around.

The reason why I’m alluding to appropriations is that unlike many federal agencies within both the Executive as well as the Legislative branch, we have been created by statute.  It would take much more than an appropriations committee zeroing out the budget of the Law Library of Congress.  It would take an act of Congress in order for that to occur.  I’ve never been part of another agency with that type of protection.

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

I like to travel to what I consider exotic places.  I have on my agenda for this year to get to the base camp of Mount Everest or to go to Machu Picchu.  Exotic travel is something that is very dear to my heart.  It is something that I pursued in the past, and I want to continue to pursue.

I’ve been to the Great Wall of China and seen the Terracotta warriors, also in China.  I’ve been to some exotic places during my Peace Corps travels.  I once made a solo journey on foot to Incan ruins before they were open to the public and had a twelve hour cockleshell boat journey along an isthmus on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua that took me to a point on a peninsula that is very seldom visited.

Comments (6)

  1. Congratulations on a great career. Diane (from Africa) sent us your interview. Nice going! We returned to Boston after 16 years in the Republica Dominicana and 6 years in Hawaii. First time we saw snow in 21 years. Hope that your Mom and brother & sister are all well. Best regard from the The Gildays’

  2. Don, At last week’s LOC luncheon for the Peace Corps Writers group, I met you while admiring the Bill Mauldin drawing, “What to Do Till the Peace Corps Comes.”

    Thanks so much for finding it in the LOC files and displaying it for all of us to see. I’ve told others about it, and, just as I plan to do, they’re going to try to purchase copies from the LOC online.

    It’s also been nice learning more about you through the above interview. –Tino Calabia Peace Corps Peru, 1963-65

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