What It’s Like to Be a State Legislative Librarian
State legislative librarians are equal parts historian, legal assistant, and shoulder to cry on.
When acquaintances or people I’ve just met ask me where I work, I no longer tell them the North Carolina General Assembly. This is not because I’m ashamed — working for NCGA fills me with pride.
I stopped because I was tired of quizzical looks. Misunderstandings. Questions of “What’s that?” The term “General Assembly” is, apparently, not in popular parlance.
Now, I say I work for the state legislature. This satisfies most people, but some still seem wary. Their eyes get that faraway look, as though I mentioned a name they think they should know but don’t quite recognize.
I could say I’m a law librarian, a title nearly everyone would recognize. Yet this obscures the singular nature of my position. I am the only legislative library director in the state. Nationwide, there are forty-nine others at most (it’s actually fewer, as some states don’t have a legislative library).
What is my job like? What are my patrons like? What unique issues do I face? Most of all, if I had it to do over again, would I?
Don’t Tell They’ve Asked
Privacy is a perennial concern for librarians. Article VII of the Library Bill of Rights states that “All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use.” Whether in a public, academic, or special library, users should be able to browse, select, and access information without fear of embarrassment, judgment, or reprisal.
With patrons who are lawmakers, more is at stake than personal comfort.
Every state has public records laws, which govern the public’s right to access information created by government agencies. Some states treat legislative documents the same as documents in the executive or judicial branches. Others give legislative records special treatment or don’t address them at all, relying on principles of separation of powers and legislative immunity to shield certain documents. (Click here for more on the public records laws of all fifty states.)
North Carolina General Statute § 132–1 defines public records as
all documents . . . regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.
This statute doesn’t apply specifically to the General Assembly, which can determine whether its own records are public records. A separate statute, G.S. § 120–131, states that “Documents prepared by legislative employees upon the request of legislators are confidential.” With one or two exceptions, “the document may not be revealed nor may a copy of the document be provided to any person who is not a legislative employee without the consent of the legislator.”
Bottom line: Legislators often ask me to help answer constituent questions, and I can’t reveal the specifics of those requests.
Patrons Say the Darndest Things
One patron asks if the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution is going to expire.
Another wants to prove it’s illegal for the government to impose taxes.
I was once asked, “How do I copyright my name?” Seems the patron wanted to make sure no one — like, say, a bill collector — could send mail addressed to him without his permission.
Most law library questions aren’t that outré. The patrons are ordinary people faced with a legal situation — eviction, divorce, child support, arrest. They are desperate for help. I never let myself forget this. It reminds me that I have an ethical obligation to provide all the assistance I can. The alternative is more than a patron not being able to access the wifi or check out Stephen King’s latest novel. It could be literally life or death.
This doesn’t mean I try to answer every question. One of a law librarian’s most important skills is knowing what you’re qualified to answer and what, instead, should be referred to an attorney.
Generally, an interpretive question is best referred out. Suppose a patron asks for help locating recent cases on age discrimination. This is perfect for a librarian, the equivalent of asking for books on a subject.
However, if the patron wants to know whether she should sue for age discrimination, she is asking me to interpret the law as it applies to her set of facts. In other words, she is asking for advice.
Even librarians who happen to be attorneys — often the case in law school libraries — should not answer this question, as they may inadvertently create an attorney–client relationship, which imposes all sorts of obligations on both parties.
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Learn to Listen
My library gets a lot of phone calls. A lot. I can help with many them, such as questions about the status of a bill, the history of a statute, or how many African-Americans have been elected since 1990.
Others have more urgent needs, such as getting a divorce. Fighting for child custody. Appealing a prison sentence. Avoiding eviction. I hear from teachers desperate for an increase in their mediocre salaries. Chronic pain patients who want to take medical marijuana. A worker whose company scoffed at her claims of sexual harassment. An elderly tenant who was being evicted the next day. There is often nothing I can do for someone who needs genuine legal assistance.
Actually, there is one thing I can do. I can listen.
Most patrons don’t research the law for fun. They research it, as I said, because they need to resolve a legal situation, a situation that is stressful, expensive, and/or scary. Many of them don’t call me first. They call because they’ve tried everywhere else — governor, courthouse, attorney general, police, FBI, every church in town, Legal Aid, Howard Stern, their cousin’s friend’s ex-boyfriend who did a semester in law school before flunking out — and gotten nowhere. They need someone, anyone, to take them seriously.
I always let them vent. A little.
Listening is important for personal and professional reasons. “Business is tied together by its systems of communication,” according to one study, “[which] depends more on the spoken word than it does on the written word; and the effectiveness of the spoken word hinges not so much on how people talk as on how they listen.” The authors of the study believe listening is a skill that can be taught. Their research revealed that good listeners regularly engage in four mental activities:
- Thinking ahead of the talker, anticipating where the conversation is going and what conclusions can be drawn;
- Weighing the talker’s evidence to determine whether it is valid and complete;
- Periodically reviewing and mentally summarizing what the talker has said; and
- Paying attention to nonverbal communication (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, pauses) for added meaning. In other words, “listening between the lines.”
The International Listening Association was founded in 1979 on a similar principle: to “promote the study of listening, exchange information, and pursue research into the ways in which listening can develop understanding in our personal, political, social, and working lives.”
I don’t tolerate abuse when I let a patron vent. But if a few minutes of harangue calms them down, that helps me provide better reference service. In fact, some patrons seem to want nothing more than a willing ear. Having someone listen to them makes them feel valued.
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Sometimes, a Great Reference Question
When was the first time prayer was used to open a legislative session?
Was a particular 1961 bill a public or a local bill?
How many babies were born in North Carolina to moms who had previously terminated a pregnancy?
When the Legislative Building opened in 1963, was there a bathroom on the third floor marked “Coloreds Only”?
These are a few of the compelling and complex questions I have received at the General Assembly. For some, there was a definite answer — a trip to the State Archives to examine the original jacket for that 1961 bill put that one to rest.
For others, like the possibly segregated bathrooms, the truth may never be known.
Interesting, thoughtful questions are my favorite aspect of being a state legislative librarian. I am equal parts historian, legal assistant, and shoulder to cry on. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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