Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Roberta Schaffer, Law Librarian of Congress, Energizes the Profession

The DC/SLA Leadership Lecture Series was kicked off on 22 February 2010 with our distinguished guest, Roberta Shaffer. Shaffer has worn many hats in her career: lawyer, law librarian, dean of various library schools, staff assistant at the Library of Congress, former FLICC /FEDLINK Executive Director, and current Law Librarian of Congress. What better way to begin a series on leadership than with a leader who can share her deep and varied experience with and enthusiasm for law and librarianship, as well as her energy and love for life?

The lecture series was held at the law firm of Covington and Burling, one of the stops on Shaffer’s career journey. Mary Talley, DC/SLA vice-president, conducted the program as an interview session. Over the course of an hour, Talley asked Shaffer questions about her career path, position as Law Librarian of Congress, management and leadership philosophy, attitudes towards educating and hiring professionals, and what she does for fun.

Shaffer, with great dramatic humor, relayed the story of how she went to Emory Library School following a serious horseback riding injury during her first year at Tulane Law School. She went to Atlanta for physical therapy and ended up in Emory’s library program at the urging of her father who, mistakenly, thought librarianship would offer her a sedentary profession, which would improve her chances of recuperation.

Judging from Shaffer’s very lively, energetic discussion, “sedentary” is not a word in her career vocabulary. She eventually returned to Tulane to complete her law degree and practice law for a very short time. Her love for librarianship eventually drew her back to the profession, where she combined her expertise in law and librarianship to become the first assistant to a Librarian of Congress (Dr. Billington). From that moment on she was smitten with the great role of the Library of Congress in accumulating and disseminating the world’s knowledge and dreamed of returning someday as the Law Librarian of Congress.

Although she tells that dream as a sort-of joke, she kept it as a clear, if distant, goal throughout her career, from her work as director of the Covington and Burling law firm library, to Dean of the Library School at University of Texas, to Executive Director at the Federal Library and Information Center Committee. Dreaming big paid off; Shaffer did indeed reach her goal.

Among the interesting things the audience heard from Shaffer:

- Never stay in one job for your entire career.
You become stale in one place and bogged down in one culture. Even changing jobs in one organization leaves you caught up in a single work culture. By changing positions throughout your career, you learn new ways of thinking and working, which will make you more valuable in each new position you take.

- Listen to your gut.
If you take a job and it doesn’t “feel” right, don’t do it. Shaffer gave an example of a position she accepted in Washington based primarily on family considerations, leaving a job in Texas that she loved. She took the first job that was offered to her, and it turned out not to be a fit. She said it didn’t feel right when she accepted the position in D.C. and taking the job was something she regretted.

- Take risks, and, as a manager, reward risk-taking in the people you manage.
Obviously Shaffer has taken risks in her career and succeeded, always keeping her eye on the ball. She admitted to occasions when risks she took did not result in a success, particularly when she had not followed her own instincts. She also tries to make it safe for her staff to take risks, rewarding them for their efforts, even though they may sometimes fail. The failure isn’t rewarded, lessons are learned from that, but the risk taking is rewarded with a ceremony and a certificate for the risk-taking effort.

- Hire energetic staff.
The more intangible qualities Shaffer values in job candidates are a high-level of energy and enthusiasm. The positions she fills at the Law Library of Congress, she feels, are not ones that allow staff to sit quietly behind a desk or computer and wait for a request. They are all very physical, requiring movement, drive and energy. She stated with some pride that the Law Library of Congress reference staff worked through Christmas Eve during the historic Senate healthcare reform vote.

In response to the question “Where do you want to take the Law Library of Congress in the next few years?” Shaffer talked about how the law affects almost every area of daily life and how important it is to democracy to make the law readily accessible to the average citizen. She believes the Law Library of Congress has a big role to play in educating the citizenry about the law. One step the Library is taking now in that direction is to register the Law.Gov site so it can eventually host it as a one-stop shop for federal, state and international government and legal information.

The evening closed with Ms. Shaffer sharing some personal information about herself and her dog, Snowflake, a West-Highland terrier, that she has raised as a “reading dog.” Snowflake has worked with autistic children and currently curls up with kids with reading difficulties while they read out loud to her. When Shaffer retires sometime in the future she wants to devote more time to working with her dogs to help troubled children.

As for retirement, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Shaffer admitted that she works long hours, doesn’t sleep a lot, and works weekends too. How else could she have fit so much into such a productive and successful life?

We are all so lucky to have Roberta Shaffer as the Law Librarian of Congress.

- Anne White-Olson, Informationist, National Institutes of Health Library, DC/SLA Program Planning Committee
- Mary Talley, Information Strategist, Vice-President, President-Elect, DC/SLA

No comments:

Post a Comment