Librarianship: The Never-Ending Story

In November of 2012 I attended the Distinguished Librarian Award ceremony of the Librarians Association of the University of California, Berkeley (LAUC-B). The beautiful Morrison Room in the Doe Library was the setting for this biennial event. This lovely reading room, with its muted lighting and its wooden shelves filled with volumes of great fiction, is permeated with the essence of learning and the life of the mind. The two honorees were Lillian Castillo-Speed of the Ethnic Studies Library and Marci Hoffman of the Law Library. Each of these women has a remarkable career, but since I know Marci well, I want to choose her as an example of the career path of a law librarian in the United States. Marci has ridden the waves of change in academic librarianship. (She will disapprove heartily of my use of her career path as an example, but perhaps she will never read this post).

Marci began her professional career operating a documents delivery service in the Boalt Hall Law Library. In the days of paper, law firms frequently needed to borrow books, loose leaf volumes and serials that the Library held. The firms would send runners to the Library to make copies, or to beg to check out items. In the days before pdf attachments and pervasive scanning equipment, the San Francisco Bay Area was festooned with bicycle messengers rushing about town moving information in its paper format). As the practice of law became more demanding, the needs of law firms increased. At the Library we decided to seize on the cutting edge technology of the day: the fax machine, and to offer to fax the materials needed by the law firm directly to it, for a price. If needed we would do a smidgen of research, but the idea was straight document delivery, no runners needed and you could pay for express service if it was merited. Dean Joan Howland of the University of Minnesota Law School, then the Deputy Director of the Law Library, deserves credit for setting up our creatively named Boalt Express service, and everyone pitched in to get it going, but I think of it as a Marci Hoffman enterprise. As California was going through its perpetual budget squeeze, we even turned the operation into a tiny profit center. Marci did it all. She was both an entrepreneur who sold the service, and a reference librarian who understood the materials. At the time delivering documents on a pay as you go basis, while attempting to turn a profit in the process, was considered gauche. But it worked. It was copied. Marci won the day.

Marci then left for Minnesota where she worked as Foreign and International Librarian. As she mastered the cob-webbed sources of foreign and international law, she saw the power of the internet and began to work with online sources. In tandem with gifted colleagues she produced valuable tools for academic researchers and practitioners. That led to a similar job at Georgetown Law School where Marci went to work on projects for the American Society for International Law (ASIL). Even as she grew more and more learned in the traditional sources, Marci plugged into the world of the Internet. I began to call her Queen of the Internet. Of course she never let go of her attachment to books, but she saw the future and she helped build it.

Then we pulled her back to Berkeley where she is now Associate Law Librarian. She teaches a course at the law school on International Legal Research, As Associate Librarian she has daunting day to day responsibilities. But she keeps reaching out, The AALL has appointed her as editor of the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals and Brill has asked her to assume the editorship of the Foreign Law Guide from the retiring team of Tom Reynolds and Arturo Flores. She even found time to co-author a book with me, though the careful reader will note the order of the names on the spine. Hoffman comes before Berring for a good reason, it is Marci’s inspiration and perspiration at the center of the book.

Why single out Marci? She is the epitome of a librarian who rode the wave. She kept adapting to the information and the world. When fax machines were an innovative delivery system, she seized upon it. When earning money at a library located at a public university was considered unseemly, she made it happen and inspired imitation. When mastery of printed classics remained crucial even in the 21st Century, she perfected her knowledge of them. When the internet offered bright new possibilities, she leapt at them. When she was given the chance to enter the law school curriculum as a teacher, she created a course. There is more, but I grow tired of listing things.

All the while she has been filled with energy, focus and a belief in the value of what she does. Marci also has one of the most acerbic senses of humor that the Western world has ever produced.

That’s a librarian. From books to pixels, from document delivery to international research; from day to day library management to projects for ASIL and AALL; from writing about research tools to teaching about them, librarians today must make that journey. Librarianship is made up a millions of stories like Marci Hoffman’s. Doubtless many readers of this blog could tell a similar tale, or plan to work on a career arc similar to hers. But I left that LAUC-B ceremony in such good spirits, filled with such faith in the unending adaptability of librarians, that I had to riff on it. No matter what happens, librarians will adapt.

May 2013 be good to all of us.


  1. Bob – Loved the Marci Hoffman Story. She is very much a librarian hero and always will be. We need more of these inspiring stories — you are one, too. You once called me a “character” – well it takes one to know one, don’t you think?