Louis-Jacques Oral History

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Oral History: Lyonette Louis-Jacques

*Teresa Stanton, Reference/Foreign and International Law Librarian,
University of North Carolina, conducted the oral history.

I am the Foreign and International Law Librarian and Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago D'Angelo Law Library. I was born in Haiti and I am a naturalized citizen, so every once in a while there may be a little French accent, a little Creole accent creeping in.

Q: How did you come to work as FCIL librarian?

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I worked in the law library as a circulation desk attendant, checking out books to people, shelving books, filing looseleaf services, and so on. I continued to work in the law library after graduation. I was a reserve/tracing assistant, then an evening circulation desk supervisor. As I was working at the law library, I realized I liked being able to help people find the books they needed and decided to become a legal reference librarian in an academic law library. For that I needed to have a library science degree and a law degree. I got those and, when it came time to graduate, I thought “I need a job.”

The University of Minnesota Law Library happened to have openings for two reference positions at the time and, for one of them, they hoped that the person would have foreign language skills. They hired me and they “grew me” into a foreign and international legal reference librarian.

I did an apprenticeship with the Foreign Law Librarian at the U of C, Adolf Sprudzs, to learn how to select FCIL materials and bibliographic tools for fielding FCIL reference questions. I went on a practicum to work with UN documents in Kiel, Germany, and visited other countries in Europe during my practicum. I attended workshops and institutes for training the next generation of FCIL librarians. I was at Minnesota from 1986 to 1992, then I returned to the U of C to succeed Mr. Sprudzs as Foreign Law Librarian in 1992.

Q: What types of things did you learn on the job?

I learned everything on the job – except for cataloging and classification. General reference approaches, the knowledge of subject headings and using the catalog to find information, that I learned in library school, but everything in the specialized area, I learned on the job.

Q: You brought languages with you – French and Creole- do you speak other languages? Did you bring all of them to the job?

Yes, I have German and Spanish. In all of them except Creole, I got trained in classes. I took all of them in school. In college I majored in French and I took courses in German and Spanish.

Q: How important is it to have knowledge of foreign languages for FCIL jobs?

Reading knowledge only is quite sufficient. Depending on the job you’re doing, they are not that necessary. In my job I don’t have to speak a foreign language very often. Every once in a while – once in a blue moon – someone might expect me to speak to a visitor in a foreign language, but that’s once in a blue moon.

In terms of needing to have reading knowledge, it depends on your job. One of the big parts of my job is to select foreign language materials, so it is helpful to have some knowledge of other languages. For reference purposes, it may make some transactions quicker.

But, for the most part, there are certain things that can help you use foreign language materials without fluency. Catalog subject headings will be in English. There will be a whole bunch of clues about what the topic is even if the title is in a foreign language. You can also use bilingual dictionaries. There are also many people in the profession who have language skills and they can help you too. So, my short answer is that maybe foreign language skills are overrated.

Q: What are your impressions of how the SIS and the profession have changed over time?

I think in the beginning we had leaders in the SIS who were more scholarly, I would say. They did in-depth, original research and wrote books on how to find treaties, how to research the law of particular countries, how to find and use international documents. They had fluency in and mastery of a variety of languages. They were experts with years of experience, specialists steeped and learned in the bibliography and substance of the field. So early on, they contributed book-length FCIL research guides. They taught at workshops and institutes. They gave us some of the resources we are using still today. Some of these people have passed on, to other professions, have retired, or are no longer with us. So, there were more specialists, more scholars in the SIS in the beginning. We have lost many of our specialists and will be losing even more in the future.

I think our SIS has grown. I was looking at the chronology and there were about one hundred and something people early on – in the 1980’s – but now, I don’t know, we have maybe four hundred? The number of people in the SIS has increased, but we are losing some of the specialists, people with more expertise, people who are more scholarly. We now have more generalists in the SIS. And electronic resources have transformed the nature of our scholarship.

Q: Where do you see the SIS going? What would you say to recruit more librarians to FCIL librarianship? What are the selling points?

A good selling point for me is that there is something very special about working with people from all over the world. There is a connection that you make through the FCIL-SIS and librarianship that is a community, a group of people who are doing something really special.

We are relied upon for expertise in foreign law resources and foreign countries. People don’t have access to that information as much, even with everything that is available on the Internet. We still have the language skills, we still have the knowledge of the resources for these systems and these countries, and comparative and international law, beyond what you might find on the Internet. We have more in-depth knowledge of the legal information sources for these systems.

And, we get to travel a lot! I really like meeting our counterparts in other countries. So there’s travel, there’s the “specialness” of having expertise in the field, of having dominion or ownership of a part of law librarianship, and there’s variety. Another part about my profession is that most of us are also doing general, Anglo-American reference, so we get to keep our feet in the middle – in both camps. Somewhat like a computing services librarian has that special skill, or government documents librarians have that special skill, you get to keep up your general skills as well as skills in your special area.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to state for the record and for future generations?

I think that what I want to say is that I am very pleased with the new people that have come into our profession. I really think it is important for all of us to do more active recruiting, to bring more people in because we need to fill our profession. If there are people with language skills out there (even if it is overrated), that is a resource for us. If there are people who have knowledge of international documents, of living overseas or traveling overseas, of foreign legal systems, we need to bring them in.

But I would like to say that our SIS – our profession – has grown. Yes, we are losing some of the specialists of the past, the people who have retired or who have gone from our lives, but we are getting people in who have a lot of energy and who bring other things to the table. We need to grow more foreign and international law librarians and we need to take a more active part, personally, in doing that.