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The Tao of Law Librarianship: Do-It-Yourself Professional Development, Part II

By Connie Crosby, Published on February 15, 2006

The Tao of Law Librarianship: Do-It-Yourself Professional Development, Part 1

New ways of developing professionally can take on many guises. I recently spoke with some colleagues about their own intriguing "DIY" activities which I found inspirational. It seems you are only really limited by your own imagination and ambition when you want to challenge yourself.

Turning life's circumstances into opportunity

Personal circumstances necessitated Louise Tsang, who was working in a Toronto academic law library as Reference Librarian at the time, to move to the U.K. for a year. "My year in London wasn't planned to advance my career in any way," Tsang told me, "but I managed to make the best of a no-pay leave of absence... Most of my professional development activities [gave me] more time to learn if not the substantive contents, then a more in-depth look at the resources on specific topics." Because of work permit issues, any work she did had to be on a voluntary basis. Unfortunately she did not have a lot of advance time to line up professional opportunities for herself.

Shortly before she left for the U.K., one of her colleagues suggested she contact someone at Oxford University since the Forced Migration Online project at the Refugee Studies Centre might need some help. They did, and she subsequently helped them as time permitted in populating the database with Canadian, U.S. and Australian resources on a part time basis. Before she left Toronto, she also contacted the librarian at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) at the University of London in the case that he might also have a project for her. He did indeed, and Tsang spent time populating databases underlying the Law Gateway of SOSIG (social science information gateway), a portal from IALS. In addition, her colleagues back home in her own law library periodically contacted her about locating case law they needed.

I asked her, in hindsight, what she took away from these experiences. Tsang developed her writing-for-the-web skills: "describing websites is not the easiest thing in the world," she told me. She gained more first-hand knowledge of the resources being described, which allowed her in later positions to teach these resources to others. She went on to say that describing websites helped her learn what makes a good website. In addition, her activities gave her contacts, notably in the area of forced migration, who were able to later help answer questions that came up in her reference work. Her experiences suited her career goals: "there is nothing wrong in wanting to climb up the professional ladder, but I am more interested in developing intellectually and hope that once I have a solid knowledge base and have good communications and people skills, the rest will come naturally."

Quenching a thirst for adventure

For all outward appearances, Danielle Brosseau is a quiet, soft-spoken law librarian. But she is neither shy nor retiring. She takes on career opportunities where few others head, pursuing work situations in unusual places. I asked her to describe some of these:

"From May to September in 2000 I took on a summer internship at the Nunavut Court of Justice Library in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada's newest territory [in the far north]. My main job was to set up a new Judge's Library from a collection of books donated by Justice Horace Krever, head of the Commission of Inquiry that probed Canada's tainted blood disaster during the 1980s. I always thought I would head back up to the Great White North but after 5 years at the national law firm Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Toronto, the opportunity to relocate to sunny sub-tropical Bermuda landed directly in my lap. Today, I manage the library at Mello Jones & Martin in the city of Hamilton."

What drove her to work in these diverse locations? "I have quite an insatiable appetite for travel and new cultures. Working and living in interesting and exotic places seems to do the trick! One of the things that led me to the profession of librarianship was the opportunity to work anywhere in the world," she explained.
When asked how she keeps up to date with the profession now that she is more isolated, she told me, "I continue to take advantage of the excellent library associations and communities around the world. Friends and colleagues are never further away than a quick email." She also attributes her understanding of substantive legal subjects to reading:

"I regularly read law-related newspapers, journals and other practice-related materials. Now that I work in a small firm (20 attorneys) I have the opportunity to conduct in-depth research and peruse the legal treatises in more detail and on a regular basis. This hands-on experience has greatly increased my knowledge of law."

I also asked her about opportunities she has found to connect with the few other law librarians in Bermuda: "There are currently four law librarians on the Island. We correspond often and share resources where possible. This past holiday season we had a lovely, festive lunch together at one of the beautiful open-air restaurants on the Island."

Following your passion

Newly-minted librarian Le Dieu Tran enrolled in a university-sponsored work exchange which led her to Finland for four months in the summer of 2005, immediately following the completion of her Master of Information Studies degree. She explained, "I decided to apply for this exchange because I didn't know too much about Finland but the idea of traveling and working in Scandinavia intrigued me a lot!" Tran did not know in advance what type of work she would be doing, although placements were to be based on the participants' interests. She was therefore thrilled to find she would be working in a library, at Säteilyturvakeskus (STUK), the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority of Finland. STUK is both a regulatory body and also a research institute in the areas of radiation and nuclear safety.

While working at the STUK library, Tran gained practical experience in a wide range of library responsibilities including processing new materials, shelving, cataloguing, and interlibrary loan. While there, the head librarian took her under her wing and arranged for visits to numerous libraries, including some in other parts of Finland:

"My supervisor was a strong believer in professional development and networking with other information professionals so she had arranged for me to visit a number of different types of libraries (special, academic, public, governmental, etc.) and to meet with the librarians. It was great meeting other librarians and discovering that librarianship is quite universal. The unexpected part was that STUK...had paid for all of my out of town library visits (3 in total - 1 flight and 2 train tickets). I was totally overwhelmed by their generosity. I had such an amazing summer; it was quite surreal as I think about it now. At times, I had to pinch myself to make sure that everything that I was experiencing was real."
This was a life experience which has affected her on many levels. "I've gained so much from this experience both personally and professionally," she told me.
"I now have a great group of friends in another country who I can visit in the future. I also have a greater understanding about Finland, its culture and way of life. As well, I've also learned the importance of being flexible and adaptable when living in a country where English is not the main language (having a sense of humour is a great asset when things get "lost in translation"!). By far, the best way to learn about another culture is to live amongst its people. I was very fortunate to have this unique opportunity to live as well as work in Finland."
Tran recorded her experiences in a personal blog, Leddie's Log, where she talks about the people she met and her daily experience. By reading her blog, you can follow her journey as she explores new places and people, and especially discovers new favourite food.

Seeking your own adventure

I asked each of these adventurous librarians for advice for others. Louise Tsang's secret to her success in her unusual circumstances, she said, was "meeting the right people at the right time (but one does have to be prepared and make it the right time for the right people to meet one)." Her advice to young law librarians seeking to develop their careers: "perform their jobs the best they can, make themselves available for opportunities to come their way, be active in professional associations." She also told me that, in challenging yourself, "make sure you perform what you have agreed to do" since "having a good reputation is so important." She feels a strong work ethic is essential, stating that library directors "appreciate people who are reliable more than people who are ferociously intelligent but think they are too clever to work hard."

Danielle Brosseau's words of encouragement:
"Organizations are complex networks that rely on bright, creative, open-minded individuals. My advice would be to take on projects and tasks that may lie beyond the traditional library realm. Working with professionals in other areas such as IT, Marketing, Human Resources, will keep you thinking out-of-the-box. Get out and learn about everything you can and see the organization from all different angles."
Le Dieu Tran's experiences are particularly inspiring to library students. Her advice is "to be proactive and to seek out and create your own opportunities if one does not exist. The chance to gain experience working abroad in a library is a lot more achievable than one may think." She explained to me how one would get started finding an internship abroad:
"Many a times, library internships abroad are not formally advertised as such. Rather, large organizations will advertise for general internships (or traineeships) and if they have a library or information centre, there are probably opportunities for a student to do a library internship there. Thus, if a student was interested in an organization, research whether or not there is a library, find a contact for the library and inquire if they offer internships. There are many opportunities in Europe with international organizations such as those affiliated with the United Nations (e.g., the International Labour Organization and The UNFCCC Library & Documentation Centre), the International Criminal Court as well as the European Union (if you have EU citizenship, this opens up many more opportunities in Europe). Many opportunities also exist in the United States and there are probably many in developing countries with NGOs as well. Furthermore, young Canadians can take advantage of special agreements with countries such as Switzerland, the UK, Australia, etc. that allow young people to work in such countries for a short period of time."

She follows up with a caveat: "The drawback of internships is that you will most likely not be making big bucks (some offer a stipend while others are unpaid). So you should go in with the mind-set that you are there to learn and have fun, not to make money." For those of us who see librarianship as a vocation, this should not be a big deterrent.

If you are looking for your own adventure, also give some thought to a work exchange. Katherine Thomas has put together an excellent guide to resources for library work exchanges in this issue of LLRX, entitled Job Swaps and Library Exchanges.

Who knows what opportunities lie ahead if you only seek them out? Whether you take a small step into something new, or leap head on into the unknown, you are bound to reap the rewards of new understanding and new opportunity.

Louise Tsang is Reference Librarian at the Georgetown University Law Library in Washington, D.C. Danielle Brosseau is Information Services Manager at Mello Jones & Martin in Hamiltion, Bermuda. Le Dieu Tran currently has a short-term contract position at the Legislative Library of Ontario in Toronto, Canada.

Do you have career-related anecdotes or ideas for professional development that you would like to share with Connie Crosby? Email her.