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An Interview with Penelope Fay Heavner, Special Assistant to the Assistant Law Librarian for Collections, Outreach and Services

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This week’s interview is with Penelope Fay Heavner, Special Assistant to the Assistant Law Librarian for Collections, Outreach and Services. Penelope, known here as Penny, is a lovely, cheerful lady with British accent and knowledge and experience in many areas including reference librarianship and outreach activities.

Describe your background

I have lived in Washington, D.C. for so many years now that I describe myself as a “Washingtonian.”  I came here in the early 1970s by way of South America.  Before then I lived and worked in London, including working for a short time for a barristers’ chambers at the Middle Temple.  I would have to say that it was something of a shock to me when I arrived in Washington.  As the capital of the United States, I assumed Washington would be a large, busy, cosmopolitan city like London.  Today when we enjoy such a profusion of theatres, restaurants, multiple museums, and art galleries, it is hard to remember that in the early 1970s Washington was still a somewhat provincial small town.

Penny standing on a trail and leaning against a rock with mountains and a river in the background.
Penny at the Sentieri degli Dei (The Path of the Gods) in Campania, Italy.

What is your academic/professional history?

I have an undergraduate degree from the George Washington University where I graduated Phi Beta Kappa. I also have a Master’s in Art History with a concentration in medieval and renaissance art from the same university.  I worked at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the George Washington University’s Gelman Library before obtaining a Master’s in Library Science from Catholic UniversityI joined the Congressional Research Service (CRS)  in 1987 as a reference librarian.  I worked for CRS’s reference division before moving to positions in CRS’s Finance and Administration office and then the Knowledge Services Group.  In both these last two positions I was responsible for coordinating CRS’s outreach to foundations.

How would you describe your job to other people?

Exciting!  I work with Robert Newlen who is the Assistant Law Librarian for Collections, Outreach, and Services.  I support Robert on the outreach side.  My job involves many different activities, which is what I enjoy.  I write, I research, I work with people both within and outside the Library, and I feel that I contribute directly to the support of an important American institution.

Why did you want to work at the Law Library of Congress

This is my dream job for a number of reasons. Much of my work in CRS focused on independent foundations.  Getting to know the foundation world and the breadth of the projects that foundations undertake was a revelation to me.  I think that many Americans are unaware of the myriad ways in which foundations contribute to the improvement of our society.  My position at the Law Library has a broader scope than my previous job.   Now I not only work with foundations, but I am also helping the Law Library reach out and establish relationships with a wide spectrum of organizations, corporations, and individual donors.

Additionally, the Law Library is one of the premier law libraries in the world.  It employs lawyers from all over the world with expertise in a wide range of foreign legal systems.  It is a privilege to work with and get to know these specialists.  While I most certainly was aware of and to some extent used the holdings of the Law Library when I worked as a CRS reference librarian, I knew even then that I had only skimmed the surface of the Law Library’s collections.  Working in the Law Library is giving me a far greater exposure to its impressive holdings.  The Law Library’s holdings includes some, perhaps little known, unique special collections on Jewish law, Islamic law, and the laws of Native American peoples.

What is the most interesting fact that you have learned about the Law Library of Congress?

Only one interesting fact?  Actually, there is so much that is interesting about the Law Library that I continue to learn new things every day.  Many people think of libraries as dry, uninteresting and on the sidelines of modern life.  Perhaps I can use two facts to demonstrate one point: libraries today still provide a vital public service, and that is especially true of the Law Library.  Only a few years ago the Law Library played a key role in assisting the Afghan government.   The Taliban had destroyed all copies of Afghan official documents, leaving the Karzai government with very little documentation on which to base their legal system.  The Law Library had a considerable collection of pre-Taliban legal documents and was thus in a position to help the Karzai government restore its basic legal documents and subsequent precedents developed under the pre-Taliban legal system.

The Law Library also played a similar supporting role in the 1990s.  Probably not many people know that Dr. Oleg G. Rumiantsev, who is sometimes referred to as the Russian James Madison, used the Law Library’s collection in drafting the new Russian constitution.  Dr. Rumiantsev, who was then in the United States, was a frequent visitor to the Law Library and he drew extensively on its legal collection, particularly focusing on examples of constitutions that contained the checks and balances typical in western constitutions.

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

Having worked at the Library of Congress for so long I doubt that there is much that my co-workers do not already know about me.  However, I will divulge that I have a secret, unfulfilled ambition – that is to successfully perform the role of Brunhilde in Wagner’s Der Gotterdammerung.  Brunhilde is my favorite opera heroine, and Wagner’s music for her is unparalleled.  She transitions from goddess to human, and is passionate, steadfast, and brave.  I think that the role must be one of the most satisfying that an opera singer can perform.   Of course, I should also mention that I am completely incapable of carrying even a simple tune, so this is one ambition I will never realize.  In fact, my husband always tells me that everything I sing sounds like the anvil chorus!

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