So You Want to Be a Foreign Law Librarian

I became a Foreign Law Librarian by accident. I didn’t plan on being one. Yet here I am. How did it happen? How did I come to specialize in foreign, comparative, and international law librarianship? What’s it like to be an FCIL librarian? What are the career paths of FCIL librarians generally? Should you become a Foreign Law Librarian?

My general plan after I decided I wanted to be a law librarian was to work as a general legal reference librarian in an academic law library. In order to do that, I needed a library science degree and a law degree. So I applied to library school and law schools at the same time, got accepted at both, but decided to go to library school first (I was confident I could finish library school, but was scared of law school, and didn’t want to possibly fail first). I got my A.M.L.S. (MLS/MLIS) at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1983, then immediately started law school at the University of Chicago (J.D. 1986).

Since I was working all throughout law school, I didn’t have a lot of time to look for post-law school jobs. So I was very happy to discover that the University of Minnesota Law Library had a couple of beginning reference librarian positions open when I actually had time to look. One of the openings was for someone with foreign language skills. I didn’t realize at the time, but Kathie Price, who was the law library director then, was trying to grow a Next Generation Foreign Law Librarian. Since I had French and German, I had part of the requirements she wanted to make me into an FCIL librarian. I started my career as the Foreign and International Legal Reference Librarian at the University of Minnesota in 1986 right after I graduated from law school. And the rest is history!

Every FCIL librarian has their own origin story, so how we got here varies.[1] What FCIL librarians do also varies. Generally, within academic libraries, you can be a specialist who fields all the foreign, comparative, and international law reference questions, or who fields only the hard FCIL reference questions, or you can be a generalist with FCIL reference responsibilities. I think the trend is more towards generalization, but haven’t researched it. For sure, if you have an interest in doing FCIL-related work, you can usually get an opportunity to do so in academic law libraries. You can do FCIL work in other library/institutional settings as well. There are FCIL librarians working in private law firm libraries, court libraries, county law libraries, federal and state government, international organizations, research institutions.

FCIL librarians can also be bibliographers. We can select books, foreign and international government documents, journals, and databases for our law library collections. We can teach FCIL research classes. We can be FCIL rare book specialists. We can specialize in cataloging FCIL materials. We can be foreign country law specialists. We can specialize in international human rights documents. We can be specialists within the specialty of foreign law librarianship.

Because what we do varies, skills needed to get into the profession vary. However, for reasons which I think need to be re-thought, FCIL job postings usually require foreign languages – mainly, French, German, Spanish, or Italian. Sometimes other languages, like Latin, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Russian, but the default is one or two of these four if it’s a general FCIL librarian position. In reality, an FCIL librarian is usually expected to field all language questions, so knowing how to navigate unfamiliar languages to effectively do your work or help others seems like the skill you actually need.

It’s usually good to have taken an FCIL-related law school course (public international law or comparative legal methods/traditions) or participated in international law moots, but experience, related jobs, travel, other education, interest in FCIL topics, can be proxies for the substantive law knowledge that might be required. And part of the on-the-job training for FCIL librarians can fill in gaps. You can take law and language courses.[2] You can attend law and library conferences and workshops.[3] You can do apprenticeships, internships, fellowships, practicums. You can join associations and organizations that help enhance your skills. You can network with and learn from FCIL librarian colleagues via listservs, social media, and in person. Being an FCIL librarian is an ongoing learning process. Challenging, rewarding, and fun!

Some of us spend our entire careers as FCIL librarians. My sense is that it’s a law librarianship specialty that generally pays very well? It definitely provides lots of opportunities to travel abroad. Some of us have moved into FCIL librarianship from being generalist law librarians. And some of us have moved out of FCIL librarianship to become generalist law librarians, middle managers, senior management, law library directors. You can move laterally, up, down, do whatever you want to do with FCIL librarian skills. However, to make sure you are flexible enough to move, you need to retain and cultivate your basic law librarianship competencies and skills. So, if you want to be a Foreign Law Librarian, go for it! You will never regret it. You will find you are in an endlessly fulfilling profession with wonderful colleagues to go on the journey with you.


[1] To find out how some of us got here and general information on careers in FCIL librarianship, check out the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS) Education Committee page. See also the FCIL-SIS Oral Histories page. The FCIL-SIS DipLawMatic Dialogues blog features a Foreign Law Librarian and their origin story each month – Member Profiles. I was profiled in October 2015 so you can read more of my origin story there. I have an FCIL careers page that links to documents on the 1990s initiative on Training the Future Generation of International and Foreign Law Librarians. It was added for an AALL program on FCIL librarianship core competencies.

[2] The DipLawMatic Dialogues blog has regular “Acquiring a Foreign Language” posts. It also has regular “From the Reference Desk” and “New FCIL Librarian” posts.

[3] The core conferences I go to are AALL, American Society of International Law (ASIL), and International Association of Law Libraries (IALL). I also try to go to CALL/ACBD when I can. I once went to the Canadian Council on International Law (CCIL)/Conseil canadien de droit international (CCDI) meeting and presented on researching international law via the Internet, so I recommend going to related Canadian conferences and workshops. I go to meetings of the American Bar Association Section of International Law. I attend the Association of American Law Schools meetings when they have interesting FCIL programs.

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