Career Strategies for Librarians
Experience the World as an FCIL Librarian
by Amy Burchfield
An English elections case from 1787. A bilateral investment treaty between the U.S. and Tunisia. Israeli
emigration statistics. A German law on the regulation of overtime pay. These are just some of the
requests I’ve fielded from behind the reference desk in my four years’ experience as a foreign and
international law reference librarian. Sound like fun? Then maybe a career as an FCIL librarian is for you!
What is an FCIL Librarian?
A foreign, comparative and international law librarian (FCIL librarian for short) works in the globalized
world of legal information. The three areas covered under FCIL librarianship are all related, but slightly
different. Black’s Law Dictionary defines foreign law as “the law of another country” and international law
as “the legal system governing the relationships between nations.” Comparative law is defined as “the
scholarly study of the similarities and differences between the legal systems of different jurisdictions,
such as between civil-law and common-law countries.” FCIL librarians are familiar with all three of these
The responsibilities of FCIL librarians include providing reference and instructional services for patrons,
selecting print and electronic resources for purchase, negotiating with overseas vendors, cataloging
foreign-language materials, and managing the daily operations of an international library collection.
Many of the job responsibilities correspond to those of librarians in other fields, but FCIL librarians have
an international focus to their work.
FCIL librarians work in a variety of settings. Like many of my colleagues, I work in an academic law
library. I’m fortunate to work for one that has a foreign and international library that is separate from the
regular “American” law library. Not all academic institutions have this luxury, but many law schools
house good foreign and international collections alongside their U.S. materials. Other FCIL librarians
work for law firms, especially those with a strong global practice, and for international organizations, non-
governmental organizations, and international courts and tribunals.
What are the Qualifications?
The real debate in the field of law librarianship in general—FCIL librarianship included—is whether a
law degree, or J.D., is necessary in addition to an M.L.S. The American Association of Law Libraries
(AALL) provides some statistics on this issue. According to AALL’s most recent salary survey, nearly six
out of ten (55.6%) law librarians had earned an M.L.S. without a J.D. Another 24% had both degrees.
This shows that having a J.D. is not necessary for being a FCIL librarian, but it can be helpful (and it can
correspond to a higher salary—see below).
In addition to the formal education, there are other skills that can help you as an FCIL librarian. Ellen
Schaffer is the FCIL librarian at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany.
According to Ellen, “Language skills are most important. You do not need to speak multiple languages,
but you should be able to read other languages, particularly French. Depending upon the institution, its
collections and curriculum, you might also need German and Spanish. If you are developing collections,
you will need to be able to review brochures, book reviews, and book announcements that are often in
other languages.” In addition to language skills, Ellen lists motivation to learn about the field, and the
willingness to stay up-to-date on current international affairs as important traits, as “very often the
headlines on the morning news become the first reference questions of the day.”
Learning Mostly on the Job
If there was one thing I knew for sure when I was in law school, it was that I did not want to be a
practicing lawyer. This mindset freed up plenty of time in my schedule to take classes on what interested
me most, namely international law. It was through taking these classes that I learned about many of the
basic concepts of international law and became familiar with many of the big-name treaties and
But like many others, I learned the majority of the legal research-oriented information on the job. Mary
Rumsey, a librarian at the University of Minnesota with six years’ FCIL experience, describes a number
of ways that she learns on the job. “I learn about the field using a variety of methods—sometimes from
reading articles, attending programs, and tracking blogs and listservs. But the main way I learn is
actually answering questions and asking questions of experts.” Mary also teaches a course on FCIL
research, which forces her to “explore FCIL systematically.” Rachael Smith, a new FCIL librarian at The
Ohio State University Moritz Law Library, jumped right into teaching international law research in her first
year on the job. Rachael agrees that teaching is a great way to learn a subject area fast.
Show Me the Money
Librarians are often an altruistic bunch, but let’s be frank: we all have to pay bills. There is some
evidence that FCIL librarians on the whole make more than their peers in equivalent—but non-
internationally focused—positions. The AALL Salary Survey tracks salary data for all types of law
librarians, including FCIL librarians.
The AALL 2005 Salary Survey reports that the mean income for an FCIL librarian with an M.L.S. (no J.D.)
is $61,315. With both an M.L.S. and J.D., the mean salary for a FCIL librarian is $72,803. Compared to a
reference/research librarian without a foreign/international focus, the mean salary with an M.L.S. (no J.
D.) is $53,832, and with both M.L.S. and J.D. is $54,755. That’s a significant difference that reflects the
specialized knowledge and skills required in FCIL librarianship. While you may never retire a billionaire
from a career as an FCIL librarian, there is decent earning potential in the field.
Future FCIL Prospects
The AALL Salary Survey shows that 32.0% of all law librarians are age 51 or older, and many of these
librarians will be retiring in the coming years. Ellen Schaffer, who has enjoyed a twenty-three year career
as an FCIL librarian, notes the growing opportunities in the next three to six years. “Over the next years, a
number of FCIL librarians will be retiring. I am sure that there will be opportunities for librarians
interested in international affairs, international law and comparative law to work in the specialized field of
foreign, comparative and international law.”
Experience the World
Ever since I was an exchange student in Germany during high school, I wanted to pursue an
internationally-focused career, and I wanted something that would be new every day. Mary and Rachael
also enjoy this aspect of the field. Mary notes, “What attracts me to FCIL librarianship is the variety and
challenge. I find that FCIL questions are harder and often more interesting than U.S. legal research
questions.” Rachael echoes her thoughts: “Whenever you do international stuff, it always seems like it’s
changing that much more.”
In addition to the variety it offers, there are many other things I love about my job as an FCIL librarian. It’s
a perfect mélange of many of my interests: foreign languages, law, international affairs, libraries, and
academics. Plus I get to interact with patrons from different cultures on a daily basis. If the list of
reference requests at the top of this article didn’t pique your interest, consider some of the home
countries of the patrons I serve: China, Colombia, Swaziland, India, South Africa, Jamaica and
Kazakhstan. I might not be able to travel to all of these countries, but as an FCIL librarian I get a chance
to learn about them through conversations with my library patrons.
To find out more about law librarianship and FCIL librarianship as a career, consult some of the
resources and articles on the AALL website.
American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) http://www.aallnet.org/
Foreign, Comparative & International Law Special Interest Section (AALL). Includes links to FCIL
Newsletter, listserv, and other information specific to FCIL librarianship. http://www.aallnet.org/sis/fcilsis/
The following list of articles for considering a career in FCIL law librarianship are available from the FCIL-
SIS Education Committee at http://www.aallnet.org/sis/fcilsis/committees.html
AALL’s Education for A Career in Law Librarianship
Mary Rumsey, Foreign and International Law Librarianship (2006)
Mary Whisner, Choosing Law Librarinship: Thoughts for People Considering a Career Move (1999)
Dan Wade, Wisdom from Mount Nebo (Hiei): Advice to a Young Person Aspiring to Become a Foreign
and International Law Librarian (2006)
The AALL Biennial Salary Survey & Organizational Characteristics (2005)
Available online to AALL members at http://www.aallnet.org/.
Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004)
About the Author:
Amy Burchfield has a B.A. in German from Juniata College, an M.A. in German translation from Kent
State University, and an M.L.I.S., also from Kent State. She earned a J.D. from The Ohio State University.
Amy works as a Foreign and International Law Reference Librarian at the John Wolff International and
Comparative Law Library at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Article published June 2006
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.