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Interview with Judith Gaskell, former Librarian of the Supreme Court of the United States and Law Library of Congress Volunteer

This weeks’ interview is with Judith Gaskell, former Librarian of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Judy is currently volunteering at the Law Library and is working in the office next door to mine.  I couldn’t resist popping over and asking  her to do an interview for our blog.  She kindly and graciously accepted. 

Please describe your background

I was a confirmed Midwesterner until I moved to Washington, DC in 2003.  My father was an Episcopal priest who in 1974 became the ninth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee.  Over the years our family lived in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.  After I graduated from college I lived in Chicago and Northwest Indiana.  I still miss Lake Michigan.

 What is your academic/professional history?

I started as a math major at Carleton College, but switched to English Literature in my sophomore year.  After graduation I worked a variety of jobs including assistant manager of a bookstore, full-time substitute grade school teacher in the Chicago Public School System, and dictionary editor.  My career path became more focused in August of 1970 when I got the position of Circulation Desk Assistant at the University of Chicago Law Library.  I was the only one who applied.  I started in the Graduate Library School in 1971 and finished my thesis on the Depository Library Act in April of 1975.  From mid 1974 until the end of 1977, I worked as the first librarian at the firm that was named Sonnenschein Carlin Nath and Rosenthal (now SNR Denton.)

Not having had enough school yet, I began the evening law program at DePaul College of Law in September of 1975.  In 1978 I went back to the University of Chicago as Documents Librarian and worked there for most of the rest of law school.  After graduating from law school in 1980, I went back again to the University of Chicago as the Head of Public Services. I left there for the third and final time in 1983 to become the Director of the DePaul University Law Library.  I stayed at DePaul for 20 years developing management and budgeting skills and continuing to be active in the American Association of Law Libraries and the Chicago Association of Law Libraries.  I also served for six years on the Chicago Library System board (two years as President.)

My life changed in 2003 when I was appointed to be the Librarian of the Supreme Court of the United States.  I served there until I retired at the end of September of 2011.  Working there was one of the most rewarding and interesting experiences in my life.  I had worked before with outstanding staff, students and faculty; but serving the Court is unique.  Everyone who works there focuses on the primary mission of assisting the Justices in fulfilling their constitutional responsibility by providing them with the best support possible and, because of that, the collegial atmosphere is extraordinary.

How would you describe your job to other people?

My time at the Court was one of transition and change.  The Infrastructure Modernization Project began when I arrived and was finally winding up when I retired.  Much of my job was to plan for and expedite staff and collection moves during the work, while maintaining the high level of service the Court expected.  I would start out each day with a rough idea of what needed to be accomplished and work from there.  Managing a wide variety of tasks, from monitoring the budget to giving VIP tours, required a great deal of flexibility and adaptability.  Every day was different and interesting.

Why did you want to work at the Supreme Court?

After twenty years at the DePaul Law Library I was looking for a new challenge and opportunity.  In my new position I was able to use all of my previous experience, especially my expertise gained from overseeing several renovations of existing library space.  All of this background knowledge helped make those eight years of management and infrastructure modernization fly by.

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

When the opportunity to volunteer at the Law Library of Congress was offered to me, I was quick to accept.  After working in law libraries for over forty years, I wanted to be able to keep up with the latest developments, do more research and work on special projects of use to the Law Library and the profession of law librarianship, such as the AALL Federal Inventory.

What is the most interesting fact you have learned about the Supreme Court Library?

Previous Librarians of the Court had written about its wonderful book collection, which includes a number of rare and unique volumes, but I found that its multi-talented and dedicated staff members were the true heart and soul of the Library.

What is the most interesting fact you have learned about the Law Library and/or the Library of Congress?

I continue to be impressed with the number and variety of initiatives throughout the entire Library of Congress and more specifically with the amount of work and outreach accomplished by the relatively small staff of the Law Library.  There is all this in addition to the largest collection of legal materials in the world.

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

Plants are my passion.  I have even been described as a plant fanatic.  I volunteer at the U. S. Botanic Garden and maintain one tiny garden in DC and another in Milwaukee.  I am also a life trustee of the Shirley Heinze Land Trust in Northwest Indiana, which manages over 1,100 acres of natural land including several state dedicated nature preserves.

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