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A thank you to the nation’s research librarians

| Tuesday, October 5, 2021

One incredible benefit of being at Notre Dame Law School is the opportunity to complete a directed reading. A directed reading is where you develop a research proposal and write a substantive paper on that topic, guided one-on-one by a professor of your choosing. At the end of the semester, a paper of 10,000 words yields two credits and an incredible experience. This semester, I’m doing a directed reading with Professor A.J. Bellia, who was my constitutional law professor last spring. But on what? Well, dear reader of this column, nine years ago, in 2012, I had the opportunity to be a Junior Legislator for a Day. I met with Michigan state representative Kevin Cotter, who represented my school at the time, Michigan state Sen. Judy Emmons, who was my state senator at the time and a number of other local political figures in Lansing. One of Representative Cotter’s aides guided us through our visit, and one of my most vivid memories to this day from that experience was the story he told of how in the mid-2000s, the Michigan Legislature would address gridlock surrounding budget deadlines by literally stopping the clock within their legislative chambers. The notion that legislative procedures, whether formal or informal, could regard a legislature as having the power to control time itself fascinated me then and has continued to be a source of intrigue to this day, so I knew I needed to write on it. And what better way to do that than to sign up for a directed reading?

Last month, as my directed reading commenced, I began my research on these questions. While I had found a couple of leads, the search proved somewhat tricky. Since the stoppage of time constitutes a sort of legal fiction, the practice isn’t always officially recorded in an easily accessible manner, meaning that if I wanted to be sure of the scope of this phenomenon, I needed to call on others’ knowledge and experience.

Then I had a lightbulb moment. If Representative Cotter’s aide was how I first heard the story of Michigan legislators stopping the clock as a personal anecdote, might there be others similarly situated across the country? I started going onto the websites of various states’ legislatures, finding out that just about every state in the Union has either an official legislative library with research librarians on staff or an official state library that serves a similar function. I was able to find a contact person for each state and send out an email seeking any information they might have on the stoppage of time.

I couldn’t have expected what would happen next. I thought maybe two or three might get back to me with a short story, something that would enable me to do some further digging of my own to find more useful information. Rather, at the time of this writing, I’ve had correspondence with 34 research librarians, from Alaska to Wyoming and everywhere in between. Their insights have been an absolute godsend, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will have a much stronger paper thanks to their contributions.

As a result of this endeavor, I’ve arrived at an important conclusion: I love research librarians. When I recounted this series of events to Brandy Ellis, one of Notre Dame Law School’s own incredible research librarians, she explained that the nature of these librarians’ response to my inquiry is a hallmark of the profession, given librarians’ passion for securing the freedom of information as best they can. I truly believe that there’s something to this categorical imperative. We would all do well in taking a couple of pages out of the research librarian playbook.

First: research librarians are curious. The research librarian from Tennessee noted that he had never been asked about something quite like my research topic before, and yet he proceeded to walk me through the history of the practice in Tennessee, even including an image of Tennessee’s legislative clock being physically stopped. Similarly, even though Arkansas’s legislative research director didn’t have any evidence of time stoppage in Arkansas, he not only commented on his being intrigued by my line of research but also forwarded my inquiry to the Arkansas Senate Secretary. (She proceeded to send an email of her own.) In reading many of these librarians’ responses, it truly felt like these research librarians were viewing my inquiry as an opportunity, either to help me learn something new or to learn something new themselves. We would do well to likewise approach the many life experiences we encounter – we can and should choose, on a regular basis, to cultivate a zealous curiosity about the world around us.

Second: research librarians are thorough. Again, I was expecting maybe a personal anecdote here, a passing story there in response to this line of inquiry. But just to give one example, a research librarian from Missouri replied with a wonderfully prosaic rundown of the many times Missouri had engaged in this practice, backed up with eleven news clippings that I’ll be able to cite as I continue to develop this paper. Research librarians from 14 other states sent specific documentation in response to my question, and that’s not counting the many more who provided useful links for further information. How often do we latch onto a pursuit that firmly, such that we don’t let go until we’ve reached its full and true end?

Third: research librarians are helpful above all. The approaches these research librarians took to responding to my inquiry were each unique, but what they all had in common was that they expressed an authentic desire to help. These public servants were, in their own way, living out Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Where my life collided with theirs in our ongoing hunt for information, I was given aid and assistance from all directions. It didn’t matter that a slightly deeper dig might have turned up at least some of what these librarians provided; they willingly and readily came to my aid all the same. This willingness to help a complete stranger taught me a lesson far more important than any of the myriad of research leads I have been given from these amazing people.

And so, I thank you, research librarians of the United States, especially those with whom I was in contact last month, for the incredible work that you do. My experiences this week have given me a renewed esteem for your profession, thanks to your robust collective zeal for sharing knowledge and information. Perhaps the biggest takeaway I derived from this series of encounters is that very zeal. St. Maximillian Kolbe said that it is in uniting God’s will (big W) with our own will (small w) that we find sanctity – “W + w = S” for short. Readers of this column, as we are discerning where God is calling us vocation-wise this week, let’s take the time to think about our small-w will. More specifically: where, in our own lives, do we have the zeal of a research librarian? Where can we be most authentically curious, thorough, and helpful? If we can unite that zeal, wherever it can be found, to the voice of God calling us to Himself, I truly believe that we will find ourselves on the path to sanctity.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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