David S. Mao was the 23rd Law Librarian of Congress and now serves as the Deputy Librarian of Congress. At the time of this interview, he managed the operation and policy administration of the Law Library of Congress, which contains the world’s largest collection of legal materials and serves as the leading research center for foreign, comparative, and international law. Mr. Mao has described the position as part law librarian to Congress, part steward for the law collections, and part ambassador to the world’s legal and library communities.
We invited Mr. Mao to reflect on his career.
At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to dedicate your career to public service?
The high school I attended emphasized community service. We needed to complete a minimum of 40 hours of volunteer service in order to graduate. For four years, I volunteered at a local hospital and was on the front lines of working with the public. By the time I graduated, I had amassed over 400 service hours—far more than the required amount! I knew then that service to others would be part of my long-term career.
What were the major influences on your choices and career path?
I can remember the moment that helped nudge me toward a career in law librarianship. During my first year of law school, I was given a research problem as part of my legal research and writing class. I had no idea where to begin. I went to the law library’s reference desk and asked a librarian for help. The law librarian patiently listened to my questions, helped clarify my confusion with the sources, and then left the desk to guide me to the correct area of the stacks. He not only helped me find what I needed but also demonstrated how to use the sources correctly and effectively. Thus began my appreciation and respect for law librarianship.
How did you manage to transition from the private sector to the public sector?
I joined the Library of Congress in 2005 to manage legal information research and analysis for Congress. Prior to that, I was in the private sector with a law firm that was supportive of its employees leaving to work in public service and also prided itself on welcoming former public-service employees to the firm. There was a strong culture that working in the public sector (primarily government) was something that one should do at some point in one’s career. To me, moving to the Library of Congress was a natural extension of what I had been doing at the firm: helping others find what they need and demonstrating effective and thorough legal research.
What is your chief mission and what are your principal goals as the Law Librarian of Congress?
The mission of the Law Library of Congress is to make its resources available to members of Congress, the Supreme Court, other branches of the U.S. government, and the global legal community. We seek to sustain and preserve a universal collection of law for future generations. One principal goal is to position the Law Library of Congress to continue being a leader in the law library profession in the 21st Century, specifically with respect to authenticity of, and access to digital legal information.
What is your greatest satisfaction in your current position?
My greatest satisfaction is working with the Law Library of Congress team—a high-caliber group of people who are like-minded in public service. I also am part of the senior leadership team of the larger Library of Congress (the Law Library’s parent), and it is a pleasure and honor to work with colleagues who together are leading the library profession in the Age of Information. I am always in awe to be among the leaders in the preservation, research, and digital information fields—right here at the Library of Congress.
What do you view as your greatest professional challenge(s)?
One great challenge is the idea of the Law Library of Congress being the repository for legal materials from all parts of the world. We have to be concerned with our core mission of acquiring, preserving, and accessing these materials and at the same time concerned with the formats in which these materials come to us. Acquiring legal materials from certain remote parts of the world has always been and continues to be challenging. Moreover, as the Law Library’s print collection steadily grows we continue to need adequate storage space. Now, though, an even greater challenge is how we handle non-print material. Technology is changing so fast that much is unknown about how information will come to us, how we will keep the information, and how we will make it available to users in the future.
What seem to be the most acute challenges facing legal researchers and law libraries today?
Authenticity is an acute challenge. With more and more information freely available on the Internet, how does a researcher know if the source or information is authentic and trustworthy? Luckily for law libraries, the ABA—and in particular the Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress—has actively and strongly supported the Law Library’s interest on this issue. For example, the ABA supported work on the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (“UELMA”), a uniform state law addressing authentication, access, and preservation of official state electronic legal information.
Another challenge is one of access to primary legal information. Governments have a duty to make their laws known. To fulfill this obligation, governments must do what they can to facilitate open access to the information. For many years the Law Library of Congress has worked to provide the public with access to primary legal information; for example, federal legislative information has been available, first through THOMAS.gov, and now through beta.Congress.gov (we even helped with creation of the Congressional Record app). The Law Library is committed to the principle that citizens have the right to know the laws that govern them.
To what extent has ABA involvement helped in your career?
The Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress is a close and important ally to the Law Library. As the second-oldest ABA entity, the very active committee represents a long history and tradition of ABA support for not only law libraries, but also the legal information profession. The committee’s members truly believe in the mission of the Law Library and have worked very hard over the years to raise awareness of the Law Library of Congress and what we do to support the legal community.
What advice can you give law students and young lawyers considering a career in public interest law and public service?
I recommend that law students and young lawyers find an aspect of public service that they can be passionate about and then network with lawyers (or law librarians) who can help them gain perspective on that particular field or service. More importantly, volunteer! If one is looking to make the jump into public service, one should find a volunteer organization that is most closely aligned to the kind of work one would like to do and put in some hours.
Do you have advice for lawyers seeking to change course mid-career or in a final career phase?
Find a good law librarian to gather the relevant information in one’s area of interest! As with any big move, one will want to find all the sources that will help with a very important decision—and librarians are expert at gathering, evaluating, and synthesizing information.
What would you like readers to remember about the Law Library of Congress?
Even though we have the word “Congress” in our title, we do very much serve the public. Our Reading Room is staffed with legal reference and research librarians who provide assistance to the public – no matter what legal topic. We are especially strong on U.S., foreign, and comparative law. All one needs to do is ask, and we are happy to help.
For more information on the Law Library of Congress, visit www.law.gov.