Working with FCIL Collections in British Law Libraries

By Erin Gow

Most of my FCIL experience has come from working at law libraries in the United Kingdom, where I started my career. British collections are, understandably, not considered foreign in the UK. This means that I worked in libraries with extremely deep, strong, and wide-ranging British legal collections. Primary and secondary materials were collected in both print and electronic formats. The libraries held not only primary legislation and key treatises but also British legal reference materials, journals, law reports, secondary legislation, ecclesiastical law, historic materials, citators, indexes, and a wealth of other materials comparable to the range of American resources found in a law library in the US.


The basic EU collection at Gray’s Inn Library.

Since the UK is a part of the European Union and Council of Europe, British law libraries also hold collections of legal materials related to these organizations. The law libraries that I worked at were attached to Inns of Court, which form a loose coalition and divide responsibilities for specialist FCIL collections between themselves. Gray’s Inn Library, where I was first employed, specializes in international law, while Middle Temple Library, where I worked until leaving the UK, specializes in European and American law. The other two Inn Libraries (Lincoln’s Inn and Inner Temple) divided the Commonwealth countries between them.

Gray’s Inn Library did not have a designated FCIL or International Librarian when I worked there, so everyone was expected to assist with the specialist international collection. This meant lending a hand with cataloging international materials, consulting both primary and secondary international sources to answer reference questions, and assisting library users in accessing these materials. Nearly all the international materials held at Gray’s Inn Library were in English, and consisted mostly of secondary resources along with selected key primary sources such as treaties.


A portion of the extensive collection of British law reports at Middle Temple Library.

At Middle Temple Library I worked as the European Librarian responsible for that special collection. While all the Inn libraries held some basic European Union materials, complex questions requiring more obscure resources were referred to the specialist collection at Middle Temple Library. The collection also included national materials from European countries, along with Council of Europe materials.

I found that being comfortable with a federal legal system gave me an edge in trying to wrap my mind around the European Union, which could be somewhat baffling to those used to a legal system where all powers are delegated from a central body. Although the distinction between the European Union and the Council of Europe plagued many people, the biggest learning curve for me came in working with national resources from civil law jurisdictions. Getting to grips with a completely different legal structure was particularly difficult for me in countries where the national language was not English. Most of our library patrons were English-only speakers, so the collection policy at Middle Temple Library focused on English resources whenever they were available. As an English-only speaker this made my life easier in many regards, but it was impossible to fulfill my responsibilities as European librarian or to maintain a complete collection without sometimes working with foreign language materials. There were several key French codes, for example, which Middle Temple Library traditionally held in print in the official French. When it became clear that these codes were woefully out of date I spent several weeks in protracted negotiations with French legal publishers tracking down and purchasing the appropriate replacements. Luckily my manager at the time was able to provide extremely competent translations of emails between myself and the French publisher, but I still had to identify the correct codes to purchase by cobbling together my own translations of the promotional materials.

Since Middle Temple Library specialized in American law as well, I interacted with this collection a fair amount, especially as my co-workers began to realize that they could call on me when the librarian responsible for the collection was absent. Explaining American legal resources as foreign law was an oddly frustrating sort of fun. It was nice to work with a collection where I was guaranteed to always know the language, particularly after some of my more complex excursions into European resources, but I found myself struggling to answer questions that British practitioners believed should be straightforward. I was frequently asked why Federal courts hadn’t ruled on a particular issue, for example, or which case reporters were the most authoritative for court use (I’m unaware of an American equivalent to the vital British concern of authoritative law reports). Law reporters arranged geographically were understandably unhelpful for British lawyers, and questions that tapped into the library’s special collection on the death penalty always reminded me just how ideologically foreign American law could be. My work with American legal materials while in the UK, more than anything else, made me realize just how many key differences can be masked by a shared language and history.

My experience of working with FCIL collections in the UK has continued to shape how I approach these resources now that I am in the US. A practical grounding in a variety of legal structures allows me to research unfamiliar topics across a range of jurisdictions with some confidence, but the experience of “foreign” as a changing concept ensures I never forget to respect the wide-ranging variety of FCIL resources.

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