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An Interview with Jane Sánchez, Law Librarian of Congress and Acting Deputy Librarian for Library Collections and Services

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Law Librarian of Congress Jane Sánchez in the main hall of the Library of Congress.
Jane Sánchez. Law Librarian of Congress and Acting Deputy Librarian for Library Collections and Services. Photo by Donna Sokol.

Can you tell us about you and about your career path leading to your current role(s)?

I came to the Library of Congress in November of 2014, when I began as the Chief of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division.  I assumed the position of Law Librarian of Congress in February of 2017, and also serve as Acting Deputy Librarian for Library Collections and Services since October 1, 2018.

I have worked in libraries and information management my entire career—since my undergraduate days at the University of New Mexico. Upon graduation, I worked at two libraries at Harvard UniversityLamont, the undergraduate library, and at the Graduate School of Education’s Gutman Library. My first experience with legal materials came when I was working as a manager for a judicial opinions unit at BNA, Inc.  We acquired slip opinions from federal and state courts, and I supported the legal editors by supplying them with slip opinions that met their subject areas. Later, I wrote a proposal for a source-material management system. This system became a repository for all primary legal documents coming into the company, including court slip opinions, state Attorney General opinions, state laws, state regulations, etc. In fact, the system has only recently been retired, some 20+ years later.

I received my JD from American University’s Washington College of Law and my MLS from Simmons College in Boston.  Following my time at BNA, Inc., I also served as a business unit managing director at the U.S. Government Publishing Office, an Associate Director of Justice Libraries at the U.S. Department of Justice, and, finally, department head, History and Culture libraries at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, before joining the Library of Congress in 2014.

I have been a member of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) since my BNA days, serving on both the Government Law Libraries Special Interest Section (SIS) and the Government Documents SIS.

What might a typical workday look like for you?

I manage the policy and operations of the Law Library of Congress, which contains the world’s largest collection of legal materials. First and foremost, we support Congress, so I make sure we are supporting members with the legal resources to assist them in executing their constitutional duties. As you can imagine, our days ebb and flow with the rhythm of the activities of Congress: if they are pulling an all-night session, the Law Library remains open until the final gavel falls. We are always at the ready to provide any information a member of Congress needs.  One day, they could ask our foreign law specialists about fees charged for asylum applications, and the next day, we could receive a request to borrow a rare book for a swearing-in ceremony. In supporting the public, we receive so many interesting and varied research topics every single day, so it is hard to say what are typical requests. Finally, the Law Library is acquiring and digitizing a number of primary legal documents to make them freely available (at no cost) to the world.

When I worked at the Department of Justice (DOJ) library, I referred foreign legal research questions to the Law Library of Congress. At a time when the National Security Division was being stood up, we were receiving many questions that required foreign legal expertise. I triaged foreign law reference questions from DOJ attorneys and referred them to the Law Library. In addition, on one occasion, the Law Library found an expert witness for us.

Now as Law Librarian, I see first-hand how crucial our work is in safeguarding the world’s historical and current legal materials. We must remain a leader in foreign, comparative, and international law research, with an unparalleled collection. The Law Library’s collection is approximately 60 percent foreign legal materials, and the foreign law specialists possess expertise to answer the toughest questions for some 240 jurisdictions. In addition, we have had a number of foreign visitors remark that our collection exceeds what they have back home.

Since October, I have also been managing the Library Collections and Services Group (LCSG).  The LCSG brought together three units responsible for acquiring, stewarding, describing and serving library collections – Library Services, National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and the Law Library. The LCSG also includes the John W. Kluge Center and LC’s Internship and Fellowship Programs. Therefore, you can just imagine what my workdays are like. They are anything but typical.

For library students and young librarians that might be interested in going into librarianship in a specialized area like law, what advice would you have? What kind of experience is important?

I would encourage library students to start with internships in the public and/or private sector, to discover what they like, what kind of work and work environment motivates them. New law librarians should take a chance and try different roles–either functional ones within their library or leadership roles within an association.

In my own career, I have been a cataloger, created back-of-the-book indexes, developed and created databases, assigned metadata, been a reference librarian, and I have worked for a legal publisher and many different types of libraries, both inside and outside the federal government. Also, I suggest novice librarians build a support network early on; you never know who may assist you later in your career. Finally, consider public service! Public service offers opportunities to apply your knowledge in ways that may surprise you, allowing you to stretch beyond single areas of law.

What have you most enjoyed about being a librarian and a law librarian in particular?

What I find most enjoyable about the synthesis of law and librarianship are the many chances to apply strategies from both skill sets to “big-picture” challenges and everyday issues. It is very challenging, but also very rewarding.  There’s something new to learn and teach every day. I always smile when people ask me, “Is it boring to be a librarian?”  Never! Librarians are problem solvers, researchers, detectives, acquiring agents, information literacy teachers, and so much more, all in one.

What aspects of library work have you found most interesting and/or most challenging?

The perception that books, libraries, and librarians are not essential because the internet has all of the information students and educators need. It is interesting, because it is wrong.  It is also challenging, because we have to constantly keep proving and explaining our knowledge, our values, and our contribution to the community.

As a librarian or a law librarian, you should always be marketing your library’s services to users in your immediate organization (if you are part of a large institution), outside patrons, or determining others who could benefit from your collections and services. This task is also interesting and challenging, and we all do it on daily basis.

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s collections? What is your favorite item in our rare (law) books collection?

Thomas Jefferson’s Library and George Washington’s copy of the Acts of the First Session of the First Congress under the Federal Constitution of 1789.

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

Here are two or three:

I have a twin brother–I come from a family of nine children, with three sets of twins!

I like watching mysteries. I have just recently discovered “Bordertown” (a Finnish TV series)and “Marcella” on Netflix. Highly entertaining!

I also am a fiction reader–give me anything, and I’m hooked.

Any final thoughts?

In today’s world of search engines and myriad webpages, some have questioned the future of libraries and librarians.  The award-winning fantasy author Neil Gaiman coined an insightful saying on this topic: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”  Finally, librarians should not fear change, but embrace it enthusiastically. Change is not the enemy; done right, it can lead to real progress.

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