Oral History: FRANCISCO AVALOS
*Teresa Stanton, Reference/Foreign and International Law Librarian, University of North Carolina, conducted the oral history.
My name is Francisco Avalos. I am the Foreign and International Law Librarian at the College of Law at the University of Arizona. I have been here since about 1981. I did all of my studies here at the University of Arizona and I’ve worked almost all of my professional life here at the Law School.
Before we were [an official AALL] SIS, I was asked to do a study on whether it would be more beneficial to us to stay as a [foreign and international] committee or to become an SIS. And, as I recall, I did the study and I recommended that we become an SIS because we would have more benefits within AALL. I’ve sorta stayed away lately and I’m not too familiar with what has been going on. You know, I’ve not been to a convention in about four years but I do plan on starting that again.
Back when I first got involved with our committee, one of the things that we were concerned about was the fact that there was no training for foreign and international law librarians. You just sorta became an international and foreign librarian, there was no where to go to study for this, there was no preparation for this, so that was one of our emphases – trying to prepare and make people see that they had options in the career of foreign and international law. People were not too familiar with foreign law and international law back then. We wanted to make them aware of it and show that there was a viable career move for them, so we worked on that quite a bit.
My area of specialty has always been Latin America. So, we also formed little groups within the SIS dealing with the various countries. One of our major goals back then, which I thought was a very worthy goal, was that we wanted to have librarians throughout the areas and we wanted to identify them as to what their area of expertise was – so we came up with subcommittees on Mexico, Brazil, most of the major Latin American countries and European countries. These people were supposed to be the resource for the rest of AALL. And we worked on that for many years and it worked well. I don’t know how viable that program is now. But that was of great interest to me at the time and I think we did some good work and we did identify some very good collections that were around the country that some of us did not know about. Now, I think that things are much more formal where they may even have a leader in each goup. Back then it was just us getting together informally. Those things turned into formal groups now and that’s very good.
I think [education] is important. We have a library school on campus and once in a while I will teach a course for them. I always tell them that this is a viable career for them and that it is a growth profession, because I think that we are going to need even more international and foreign law librarians. When I first got started in this, which was in the early eighties, there was probably no more than twenty – twenty-five people in our SIS. It was very small and we started thinking and seeing that many of the last batch of foreign and international law librarians had come from Europe, from some of the communist countries, the socialists countries. In the late fifties or early sixties there had been a whole group coming into the U.S. and these people were starting to get towards retirement age.
Back then, we were the young ones and we could see that there were not enough of us to fill the positions and we were concerned about that. Again, the concern was that there is no training for a foreign and international law librarian. How do you become a foreign and international law librarian? And we thought to ourselves that we were about one of the only groups that could do something like that, to start training librarians for the future. I know that our SIS is now one of the biggest ones in AALL. So, that has been the big change I have seen in the profession. Also, for many years there were maybe twenty, twenty-five who met, who did the programs and now, even [though] I haven’t been around [the AALL convention] for a while, I remember how it had changed as far as who was making presentations. There are more and more young people taking over and that is what we wanted to happen. That is one of the reasons that I stepped back too, because I thought we needed the young people to do programs and to suggest programs and to get more involved in our SIS.
One of the changes that I have seen in my profession, too, is when we first got started, there were people whose titles were foreign and international law librarian, and that is what they did. But now, there has been a change. Now, foreign and international law librarians are asked to do many other things too. I have to teach first year legal research. I do regular reference. More and more has been asked of us as far as doing the reference work or working with students – areas that had never been our ground. I have also seen people who do not have the title of foreign and international law librarian doing this on their own and they do work with foreign and international law. We have people here right now in the library, our faculty services librarian – she wants to learn about foreign and international law. And so I am working with her. To me it is very gratifying to see new people in the profession getting into foreign and international law.
There was a little bit of turmoil in our profession because there were many foreign and international law librarians who felt that they were really being imposed upon by asking them to do all of these other duties and to become competent in all these other areas of law when international law and foreign law is so vast – so big – that you could spend your whole life just doing that. But the profession had to change and some people had great difficulty with that – getting away from foreign and international law and becoming well versed in other areas of the law. But that I think that has passed and we adapted like everyone else has.
We also felt at that time that people knew very little about foreign and international law. It was a big mystery to everybody. You mentioned foreign law or international law and they would just say “Ah – I don’t know what that is.” We felt that if we educated people and showed them what it is and that it is doable, that they can become competent in international and foreign law, it will be good for us. But we have to educate people and we have to start with law librarians and then with faculty and with students. Because I think that, at least with our students, they really have no idea what foreign or international law is. Once I’ve lectured and talked to them and show them that it is something that they can work with, some of them are very excited and have gone into an international transactions class or the like, because they see that it is not this big mystery, it is something that is worth knowing. It may take a little bit more time, but you can do it and you can become competent. We did not have the [Internet] back when we got started. Now it is just a matter of being able to identify quality materials on the Internet. There are materials on the Internet that are not so good but there are also good quality materials too.
One of the major problems – I remember now, which of course was of interest to me – I’m sure there were others – but one of the things of interest to me was what I call the language barrier when it comes to foreign law. I think that one of the requirements to be a foreign law librarian is that you have to have a language – a foreign language. People don’t always get that when Mexico publishes the law, it is in Spanish. It doesn’t exist in English. So you do have to know a little bit about a language, or at least to be able to read a language. I have always been interested in this and I have written a little bit about legal translation, how misunderstood it is, and how you often hear as foreign and international law librarian dealing with a lawyer – like me dealing with Mexico – hearing the lawyer say, “well, I don’t speak Spanish, but I have a secretary who is Mexican and I’m sure she can translate for me.” You want to say “How can you say something like that? Don’t you understand that you are working with two legal systems with two specialized vocabularies that people do not know?” It is like telling an English speaker to translate this legal document for me to read your English. It is very difficult and that is one of the areas that I think we need a little bit more education, our law librarians mastering a language – even if it is just reading. The vocabulary is so specialized that it is not that big of a body of vocabulary, you can pick up quite a bit.
I would like the SIS to have a component that involves educating our faculty and other librarians as far as international law. I think we are very misunderstood as to what we do and how we do it. You get faculty that think you’re a magician, you know? How did you do that? I can’t begin to thank you – that’s great, you’re something. Then you have others which think we do nothing and won’t use us at all. And I think those two extremes have to be brought more to a middle ground, where people understand more of what we do and how things differ. I also see in our law students they have no idea that our legal system is not universal, that every country in the world does not use our legal system. As a matter of fact, our legal system is the minority when it comes to the rest of the world. And to them that is very surprising. And what I really look for them to understand is that every legal system is unique – as unique as the people themselves.
So understand that when you have legal issues that involve another country, don’t think that it is going to be very simple to work with this. You have to understand that there are two different legal systems, different traditions, and so a lawyer can’t come to me and say, you know, “I’ve got this two million dollar lawsuit going in Mexico, why don’t you help me?” What you want to say is, “Listen, you need to get a Mexican lawyer to do that, otherwise it’s not going to work – it’s not to your advantage to come ask me to help or for me to try it. Invest a little bit more and get yourself a Mexican lawyer to do it,” because the legal systems are so different and people seem to think there is only one legal system. Most of the primary sources of law are in their language.
As the world becomes more and more international, the markets and everything, we need to know that there are differences and we have to work out where we can work with both systems. I see the common law tradition and the civil law tradition of this world coming closer together. When I first started here, case law in Mexico was nonexistent. You used to ask over there and they would say, no we don’t use case law, we don’t rely on cases, we have statutes. Now, they have quite a body of case law and some of it is mandatory case law – they do have it. It is not quite like ours, but they do have it. And our system, which is supposed to be a non-statutory system, I see more and more statutes being passed and I think they are coming closer together as far as us having more and more statutory law and the civil law systems having more and more case law. I think it is something that they do need so there is more uniformity in their decisions, like we have in ours. I see those things coming closer and closer together. If you do research in Europe – France, Spain, whatever – case law comes up and is being used. They don’t have resources we have, so it is very difficult to get case law.
One of the big things that also throws people off is that in these countries facts of the case don’t really matter, it is more the principle of the law, where in ours, facts do matter quite a bit. If someone gets run over by a car, or hit by a ball in the park, you know, where was he sitting, what protection was there, what hit him, who did this; where in civil law countries it is a tort and that is all that matters. So we have to think in those terms when even when they start doing their research that, yes they do have case law, but it is going to be different and their decisions are going to be a little paragraph telling us about the legal concept that was applied.
I think I’ll be going this year to AALL. I haven’t been for quite a while but I want to go back and maybe get a little more involved. You sorta get burned out. I was the president, I was the treasurer, I was this and that, because all of us were the same from year to year and would get together and just pass these positions around and do presentations as best we could. Now I am interested in going to see what the people are doing and how the profession is going.
I am very proud of my profession, I think it is one of the noble professions in the world. So, I am very happy with it, very proud of it and feel very close to my fellow librarians. One of the many things that I have enjoyed is that I do feel this affinity and have felt it. When we were a smaller group, we became close and we relied on each other for a lot of help, you know. Again, just because you are a foreign law librarian doesn’t mean you know the legal system of every country in the world. We have always relied on other people. So, all these people around the country, we got very close and I still feel very close to them.