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Happy Old Year

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The following is a guest post by Roberta Shaffer, Law Librarian of Congress.

It is that time again when so many of us reflect upon achievements, and shortcomings, of the previous year and look forward to keeping ambitious resolutions for the new year.  In the past few days as the Law Library of Congress staff and I have been drafting our 2010 annual report and holiday letter, I’ve been  struck by the fact that institutions, like individuals, also have achievements and they also make resolutions – often referred to as strategic plans!

News items that summarize events at year’s end always jog my memory about the Law Library’s relevance and value (its achievements) to the many clienteles we have served in the course of a year.  That’s because so much of our research for Congress and the federal government, as well as the services that we provide to curious and concerned citizens everywhere, is tied to the legal aspects, implications, or angles, if you will, of current events.

For example, early in 2010, the extraordinarily devastating earthquake in Haiti provided the United States, through its Library of Congress, with an extra-ordinary opportunity to aid a fellow nation in need.  Along with a number of other partners around the world, we were able to help Haiti reproduce its legal patrimony, so much of which had been destroyed when Haiti’s law libraries were reduced to rubble during the quake.  This event and our reaction to it provided many lessons for me as the Law Librarian.  First, it spoke volumes [excuse my hopeless pun] about the importance of sustaining a long-term commitment to collections.  Second, it gave credence to the Law Library’s long-standing policy of collecting foreign law materials.  Third, it showed that even a Library as vast as ours needs to collaborate and coordinate with other libraries and entities – large and small – around the world.  Fourth, the experience punctuated the importance of preservation efforts.  Fifth, we learned about how effective digitization can be for large scale distribution of knowledge.  Finally, we relied upon our internal expertise in the French language and Haitian law to determine the applicability of copyright laws to what we were doing.

Another world event, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, provided us with the opportunity to research ancient maritime law contained in our rare book collection.  The situation in the Gulf demonstrated the frequent need in the law to go back to centuries’ old texts to understand the origins of our modern laws and the historical circumstances that help us to put certain contemporary legal practices into context.

We were particularly fortunate in 2010 to host a number of established and emerging scholars from around the world, and interns who were enrolled in LLM and graduate library science programs from over a dozen highly-respected academic institutions.  Law Library staff traveled to places as diverse as Finland, Korea, Georgia, and The Hague.  In all of these cases, we found the chance to interact with colleagues and compare notes on national legal developments, best practices, and professional challenges as extremely worthwhile and rewarding activities.

On a more personal level, one of the most rewarding experiences I had in 2010 focused on an internal activity involving our project to renovate and modernize the Law Library’s Reading Room.  This project is something that will take place in the next two years, and while it could simply be viewed as a refurbishing of our Reading Room, the Law Library staff is viewing this much more as a golden opportunity to envision public service in the near and longer-term future.  We have taken nothing off the table in terms of  “sacred cows” and have even been wondering will the very terms “reading” and “room” be descriptive of the activities that will eventually occur in this space?  It has really “taken our entire village,” meeting weekly and sometimes twice weekly, to share ideas about the future of legal publishing, what our next generation of users will expect, intellectual property issues, and even how our own individual research practices and “comfort books” will change.  This entire experience was a highlight of the year for me because it forced me to think about my own approach to research (I love the web, but…), my strong feelings about the non-negotiables (authenticity and authority),  the growing global perspective in everything from family law to financial regulation and, of course, all sorts of technological innovations that could have negative or positive impacts on the role of law in civil societies.

So, happy old year from the Law Library of Congress!  We are looking forward to many new challenges in 2011, so Happy New Year, too!


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