Researching Careers in Foreign, Comparative, and International Law (FCIL) Librarianship, Or, It’s a Wonderful Life!

I stumbled into this career and it has been a blast! I did not plan to specialize in foreign, comparative, and international law (FCIL) librarianship. I just wanted to be the world’s greatest general legal reference librarian (ah, youth!). But, here I am, enjoying doing work I never imagined.

Because I’ve been in the profession for a while, I get asked from time to time – how does one become an FCIL librarian? Here’s what I would have done to research career opportunities as an FCIL librarian (besides reviewing job postings to see what current employers are expecting from FCIL librarians) if I hadn’t accidentally become one.

Consult the Literature

I would start by reading up on what it’s like to be an FCIL librarian. First, I would check out the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL SIS) website’s “Articles for Considering a Career in FCIL Law Librarianship“. It includes articles by seasoned FCIL librarians, Mary Rumsey (Minnesota), Dan Wade (Yale, retired), and me (Chicago). Mary’s 2006 article answers frequently-asked questions (FAQs) about FCIL librarians. What types of work do we do? What qualifications do we need? How much do we earn? And what do we like and what frustrates us about the job? Mary Rumsey has written several other publications useful for practicing FCIL and non-FCIL librarians, including a chapter on “Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Librarianship,” in Law Librarianship in the Twenty-First Century 129-145 (Roy Balleste et al. eds., 2007). In that chapter, she describes a “Day in the Life” of an FCIL librarian. She estimates that there are about 75 official FCIL librarians in the U.S. with about 150 who are “the unofficial FCIL librarians at their workplace.”

Click on the image to enlarge this Wordle.

Dan’s 2006 article, “Wisdom from Mount Nebo (Hiei): Advice to a Young Person Aspiring to Become a Foreign and International Law Librarian,” begins with the story of Buddhist monks in Japan who must complete a 1000-mile marathon within seven years, then fast for nine days until they’re near death. To him, a successful FCIL librarian needs this type of energy, passion, and perseverance. He or she needs to run the monk’s race to have a successful career. The small group of FCIL librarians in the United States (which Dan calls a “confraternity”) connects to a “world community of law librarians” via the INT-LAW email list. Dan goes on to describe how FCIL librarians must be global citizens and engage in the world. He also stresses that the profession is fun. He discusses the “necessary aptitude” and qualifications, education and training for becoming an FCIL librarian, and future challenges. He concludes by encouraging FCIL librarian hopefuls to meet as many in our “confraternity” as possible and to have fun! Dan mentored many new FCIL librarians and the article reflects his spiritual and caring nature. One piece of advice from him that I’ve tried to take to heart is to read.

My article (updated as of December 2010 by Mary Rumsey) is about the various ways you can meet our “confraternity” of FCIL librarians and become part of the peer-to-peer global legal information network. Attending conferences, workshops, and other meetings, becoming members of law librarian associations, and subscribing to email discussion lists and other e-fora are just some of the ways to meet FCIL librarians in person. My article also updates a list Dan Wade compiled of librarians who are willing to help other librarians who have foreign, comparative and international legal research questions. It’s arranged by topic and by jurisdiction. Mary Rumsey is now updating that directory. We are always looking for volunteers! Hint, hint…

Then, I would read Penny A. Hazelton’s chapter at pages 43-64 in the International Association of Law Libraries’ IALL International Handbook of Legal Information Management (Richard A. Danner & Jules Winterton eds., 2011) in which she discusses the education and training of FCIL librarians in the United States and worldwide. She describes courses to take in library school and law school as well as continuing professional development and training opportunities such as language courses, workshops and institutes, educational programming at conferences, grants and scholarships, internships, and library visits and exchanges.

Talk to FCIL Librarians

Nothing beats going directly to the source. From my literature search, I’ll know the names of FCIL librarians and where they hang out (sounds stalkerish!). As I mention in my Jumpstart article, to meet FCIL librarians in person, attend AALL FCIL SIS meetings and programs and introduce yourself. There is usually a joint IALL/FCIL SIS reception at the AALL annual meetings. You’re welcome to attend. There’ll be food, drinks, and friendly law librarians from the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, the UK, and other countries. Making personal connections and networking with FCIL librarians will help you decide if that’s the career for you and, if you do decide to join our “confraternity”, you will have friends for life!

Look out for other meetings of interest to FCIL librarians wherever they are, including in other countries and on substantive law topics, and go. For instance, the Chinese and American Forum on Legal Information and Law Libraries (CAFLL) held its 2d meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania right before the 2011 AALL Annual Meeting (see the presentation materials here). If you were going to AALL anyway, that would have been an opportunity to meet Chinese law librarians. Joint study institutes (sponsored by AALL, the Australian Law Librarians’ Association (ALLA), the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL), the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL), and the New Zealand Law Librarians’ Association (NZLLA)) are great ways to meet librarians from common law jurisdictions (see history here). The 7th Joint Study Institute (JSI) will be held in Melbourne, Australia, February 13-16, 2013. Closer in time is the next IALL annual course on international legal information. This conference will attract many FCIL librarians and will be held in Toronto, Canada, September 30-October 4, 2012. Mark your calendars!

Alternatively, you can meet FCIL librarians virtually. As Dan Wade mentioned, many FCIL librarians are on the INT-LAW electronic discussion group. It’s a free, public email list that to which anyone can subscribe. Join INT-LAW and lurk at first until you feel comfortable asking questions. There are other useful e-fora for meeting FCIL librarians such as the AALL FCIL-SIS community (but you must pay membership fees), the OSALL-LIST Google group (South Africa, must be a member), and the free LIS-LAW (UK), ALLA-ANZ (Australia & New Zealand), law-lib (New Zealand), CALL-L (Canada), BIB-JUR (German-speaking law librarians), and Juriconnexion (France) lists. FCIL librarians are also on the general LAW-LIB email discussion list, and on Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning, Google+, and Twitter.

It’s a Wonderful Life!

Finally, I can’t imagine what it would have been like not to be an FCIL librarian. When I completed my law degree and was looking for my first law librarian job, it just so happened that the University of Minnesota had an opening for a reference librarian with foreign language skills. I needed a job, and this was my first step to becoming the world’s greatest legal reference librarian… It seemed a good fit, and would enable me to use my French, German, and Spanish. They wanted to grow the next generation foreign and international law librarian. The rest is history.

I was able to apprentice with the great Adolf Sprudzs at the University of Chicago to learn about FCIL collection development and the FCIL legal bibliography. I traveled overseas for the first time and visited several European countries, and including a practicum in Kiel, Germany. I attended AALL conferences and IALL annual courses in international law librarianship (including a very memorable one in Heidelberg, Germany). And I co-taught with Suzanne Thorpe the first international and foreign legal research course at the University of Minnesota.

I’ve met so many wonderful and interesting people and made connections I never expected in Germany, Japan, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Spain, the Philippines, the U.S., and many other places. I get to travel, and even if I don’t, working with foreign languages is like going to another country every day. I’m able to use the foreign languages (French, Spanish, and German) I know and work my way through the ones I don’t to help patrons with reference and questions, to select books, and to communicate with other law librarians worldwide. FCIL librarianship work can be challenging, but never dull, with reference, teaching, collection development and management. I love trouble-shooting technical processes. I’ve solved puzzles about resources in Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, and Russian – languages I never learned – with the help of language tools and colleagues worldwide. I am happy to be part of a special network of FCIL librarians. My “confraternity.” I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being a specialist and not a generalist has been very rewarding. Being an FCIL librarian is fun. I enjoy “running the race.” It’s a wonderful life!


  1. A remark and a question

    Lyonnette, thanks again for sharing all those resources, especially the discussion lists.

    In my experience, US lawyers are generally not internationally-minded while European ones have to think international at least some bit. Why ? Because of the EU and the smaller influence their national laws have in the intl forum.

    But at the same time, EU and the national executives of Europe don’t invest a lot in comparative law or the mrketing abroad of their own legal systems. And all the FCIL librarians you cite are anglo-saxon.

    So my question is : is there any chance a non-anglo-saxon may succeed in this business ?