Tarnawsky Oral History

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Oral History: Marta Tarnawsky

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

I'm speaking from Philadephia, Pennsylvania about my career in foreign law librarianship. I have had about 28 years at the Biddell Law Library, University of Pennsylvania Law School.

I came to Biddell on the first of May 1967, and my first day of retirement was the first day of January 1994. I have retired early because I want to devote the rest of my life to my literary pursuits.

I was born in Ukraine, and my native language is Ukrainian, and I do write some literary stuff - poetry, prose, essays, bibliographies--in Ukrainian, and on Ukrainian literature, translated into English--this is my specialty. So I wanted to get to that part of my life--to those interests. That was why I retired early.

But I enjoyed my career as foreign law librarian immensely. It was a very exciting job, one which made me learn every day. Every single day was an educational experience.

Now I had good luck with my library directors. I was there during the tenure of Morris Cohen, Richard Long, and Elizabeth Kelly. Each one of them contributed toward my professional education--professional growth. However, it was Morris Cohen who made me into a foreign law librarian. When he hired me, I was at the Free Library of Philadelphia. I was there for three years--this was my first professional job. I graduated in 1964 from Drexel Library School. And I spent three years at the Free Library of Philadephia--a general public library--in the cataloging department.

But when Morris Cohen hired me, I'm sure that the two main reasons were that I had languages--that I knew foreign languages, and that I had experience in cataloging. They had a tremendous backlog of foreign language monographs--legal monographs.

Now my native language is Ukrainian. I am fluent in Polish, because I spent my early years in Poland. I knew German rather well. English was pretty good too. I have a good reading knowledge of French and Russian--without a dictionary. I can't speak it very well, but I do understand and I can read perfectly well without a dictionary both in Russian and French. I had a good basic knowledge of Latin, because I had graducated from a European gymnasium, where Latin was--we always felt that it was taught to the extreme!--felt that we had too much Latin and too little of some other things. And of course I was able to handle all Slavic languages, because of my Ukrainian, Polish and Russian; you know, I could read some of the other languages.

So this was the main reason, I'm pretty sure, that Morris Cohen hired me at that time. But, the way that he went about it, I must say, is exemplary for other people to follow. He made sure that I grew professionally. I attended courses. I have no legal background. I have a bachelor's degree in sociology from Temple University, and the library degree from Drexel. But after I came to Penn, I have taken a number of courses both in law librarianship in general, and in foreign law librarianship, especially the Institute on Foreign Law Librarianship at the University of California at Berkeley.

It was in the summer of 1970. This was shortly after I came to Biddell--I came in 1967. And three years later, I was on a three-week institute at Berkeley. This was a very interesting and very educational experience. We had regular classes, we had regular assignments. As I said, we had regular assignments that had to be worked on in the Berkeley library. It was taught by practicing foreign law librarians; Mostecky from Harvard is one that I remember; Henke from Berkeley was with us much of the time. And there were quite a few other people--Reynolds, I think, was one of the teachers there. And this not only gave us some basis in foreign law librarianship, but it also established contacts among the people who were students and professors.

So after that Institute I also audited a number of courses at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Like comparative law; I took at least two different classes on comparative law. I took classes on Islamic law.--on torts, American torts. On the problems of East African law. On socialist law. On public international law.

So this was a constant education--this was a continuing education. I never got to the point where I earned a law degree, but as you can tell from the list most of my courses were in foreign areas, rather than in American law. But it gave me a tremendous basis, and of course each day was an educational experience, every day on the job. Not only answering questions from the legal profession--from law professors and from students. Every answer required research on my part, and that led to additional experience.

Now, in addition, Morris Cohen was the one who pressed me into teaching. He taught courses in law librarianship at Columbia, and at Drexel, and he invited me to give a lecture in each of these--as part of his course, several times. And that of course demanded preparation. You don't learn as much until you have to teach somebody else. You have to spend many, many hours preparing, and you learn, as a consequence. That's why teachers and professors know so much--because they have to learn, and they have to repeat it so many times, so they remember what they've learned.

So I must say that from the early days, in 1967, when I was hired by Morris Cohen, up to my retirement, my job changed tremendously. My job description was entirely different at the end from what it was at the very beginning, because at the beginning, I spent at least half my time cataloging foreign books. At the end, I had a professional assistant, I had no time at all for cataloging. We were teaching a regular course at the law school--a one-semester regular course with Maria Smolka. So, you know, all of this required considerable preparation, and it was a learning experience from the beginning to the very end, and I enjoyed it very much.

It was a class on foreign and international legal research. This was the first such course in any of the American law schools. Maria and I, we had to prepare from scratch. There were no books on the subject. We had to actually create the course, which was also quite an interesting experience. I spent that whole summer preparing for it--that was on my own time, obviously. It was presented to us as a challenge.

Another thing I did during my stay at Biddle, I wrote quite a few--not so many articles--but book reviews, in legal journals, and some bibliographies. There was--and still is I'm sure--an International Journal of Legal Information. It used to be called International Journal of Law Libraries, but they changed that--changed the title. Most of my articles and bibliographies were in that journal, and also some in Law Library Journal. And there was the SIS newsletter at one time, to which I contributed a little bit.

Now, my involvement with the American Association of Law Libraries was primarily in the Committee on Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals. I was there from 1976, 1977--in that time frame. There was another Foreign and International Law Committee which was separate from the Index. I was on it in 1973, and in 1982.

There was also a Committee on Foreign and International Legal Research, which I was on in 1989, 1990, 1991. There was a cataloging and classification committee--this was in the early years. I remember I was there in 1969--shortly after I came to Biddell. Actually, they planned to publish a classification manual for law libraries. I was very much involved with this; I wrote one of the chapters. But this thing never happened. Kenyon from Law Library of Congress--Kenyon was supposed to be the editor. And this wasn't finished because some people did not contribute their chapters and they finally gave up on this, so nothing happened. A lot of work went into that.

My feeling is that the main reason the SIS was established was that all these committees that I mentioned could accommodate only a section--only some of the people who wanted to be involved with foreign and international legal matters in the association. And there were very many interested people, so the committees were not sufficient for that purpose. The SIS was supposed to take care of that--to be able to group together larger numbers of foreign law librarians.

One of the main purposes of the SIS was education. All the AALL conventions that I've attended---the programs at all these conventions, some of which were organized by the SIS--they were very educational, very interesting; experts gave lectures, and we attended, and it expanded our horizons. I always felt that this was very good to have.

Actually, I was involved in teaching the foreign and international legal research class for only two years because I had a personal problem; my husband got very ill. After two years, I had to give it up and spend some time at home. I was working---not that I spent the whole time at home, away from work, but the course required additional energy and time, and I was unable to give that time at that period of my life.

Maria is still teaching this course now; the course continues. But now she is doing it herself. When it was started, we divided the course; she taught half the lectures and I gave half the lectures. You, lectures on international treaties---how to find them; on the international court; on the European Community--things of that nature.

[While I was working in reference] The demands grew; we had many, many reference questions. Actually, it got to the point where there was serious consideration of whether we should institute some system of charging for our service. It was discussed whether we should be as open as we were to the legal profession. We were serving not only our professors and our students, but the people from Philadephia. Philadelphia is a large city; it has many, many large law firms involved in international business, international legal matters. And they used our services, free of charge. At one point we were talking about this, but it's a very difficult thing--how do you charge for services? Many libraries have tried this, but it's a difficult process and the consensus was that it was not going to work very well. So at the time when I was there, we didn't charge.

Maria Smolka was the professional assistant that I hired. Then she took over my job, which was very good. It's a good thing to hire somebody ahead of time before you retire, so they can take over your job, and it doesn't become a crisis.

[Asked about her other activities]

I have twelve books published. Some of these appeared during my tenure at Biddell though I was not able to devote much time to it.

The main thing that you may be more interested in than some of the other stuff that I do is that I have become an expert on Ukrainian literature in English. I have an annotated bibliography of all publications on Ukrainian literature, about Ukrainian literature, and translations of Ukrainian literature--both in books, in articles, in journal publications. And I have this since the beginning of time, which means in this case the middle of the 19th century. So I have three books of bibliographies on this subject already published, the fourth one is in print, and I'm working on the fifth book. And this is published by the University of Alberta in Canada. They do it as research reports, but these are substantial books; my third such publication has almost 500 pages of small print.

I'm not retired; I have a friend who says that I've never been as busy as I am now. That is not quite true. I do it only when I feel like it; I'm not under the same stresses and pressures.

They gave me a retirement dinner at Penn, and I had to say something to the attendees. So I said, "I'm retiring because I want to work on my own research rather than on somebody else's research." Some of the professors who attended understood me perfectly well, because I had done a lot of their research.

[Asked for advice to new FCIL librarians]

I would say that the most important thing for anybody is to be open-minded, to have as much as possible of intellectual curiosity, as the basis of all this--an eagerness to learn. If you are intellectually curious, if you are eager to learn, you will enjoy it tremendously, because it's a challenge from day to day. You know, every question--well, not every question--after a while, some of them become routine--but in the beginning for example, the first time you get a question like that, it's a challenge, and you learn from it. It's extremely interesting--it's a very interesting profession. I must say that when I first started I never dreamed that it would be such an interesting profession. I enjoyed it very much.

And being at Penn, with Cohen, and Long, and Kelly, I was able to travel sometimes, for institutes involved in international and foreign legal matters. So, it expanded my horizons, and I enjoyed it very much.