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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
have twelve books published. Some of these appeared during my tenure at
Biddell though I was not able to devote much time to it.
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
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
[Asked for advice to new FCIL librarians]
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.
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.