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Judith Gaskell is probably one of the few law librarians in the country whose most urgent work depends on a 70-year-old dumbwaiter. That’s because when the justices of the Supreme Court want to take a look at a brief that dates to, say, 1953, she has to get it into their hands, fast. She’s learned that it takes less time to send papers down in the dumbwaiter than to give them to a clerk for hand delivery. “It still works well,” Gaskell says of the dumbwaiter. “The justices are usually not aware of exactly how the material gets to their bench,” but oral arguments would stall without it. In other ways, though, Gaskell, 58, has a job much like any other law librarian: contacting neighboring libraries to fill special requests, keeping an eye on a troublesome copy machine, selecting material for off-site storage. Interviewed in her office on a densely humid day in June, Gaskell provided a rare glimpse into the job she moved from Indiana to take last August and the special collection she has since learned to manage. With her hair cropped near her shoulders and clad in a long, sensible dress, Gaskell leads her guests to a commanding conference table and arranges herself inconspicuously at its side. She is unembellished, unaffected, and reasonably uncomfortable in the spotlight. From time to time, she glances down at the papers she has prepared to double-check facts and dates not yet committed to memory. She’s calm and works hard to deflect any controversy in her conversation. But one thing that excites her? The idea that a profile of her might be read by members of the American Association of Law Librarians. OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT The Court library, like Gaskell’s staff of 29, operates away from the public eye. The library’s third-floor rooms are accessible by a manned elevator, which is itself an ornate cubby tucked away in the inner halls of the building, available only to a coterie of Washington’s legal community. Justices, members of Congress, roughly 180,000 members of the Supreme Court Bar — those certified to argue in front of the Court — and building staff have access to the noncirculating library. The elevator empties into a circulation area, which holds a handful of her eight research librarians’ desks. Five white oak arches, carved with the medallions of early English publishers, border the length of the majestic reading room next door. Gaskell’s spacious office has echoes of such grandeur, with black leather furniture that she says is, like the building itself, nearly 70. A wall of oak bookshelves bearing volumes with a blur of seemingly identical spines looms over her matching oak desk. Framed personal photos cluster in pockets of the upper shelves. The view out her panel of windows might help situate the office in a complex riven with side entrances and cavernous corridors. But all her windows reveal are the white marble walls of the building’s other sides, glaring in the afternoon sun. Gaskell’s appointment as the Supreme Court’s 10th librarian followed the retirement of Shelly Dowling after 15 years. Gaskell was born in Minnesota and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Carleton College in 1967. She says she happened into library science when she worked at a circulation desk after college. She then obtained a master’s in library science from the University of Chicago in 1975 and a law degree from DePaul University in 1980. Prior to moving to Washington last year, Gaskell spent 20 years as a librarian at the DePaul University College of Law in Illinois. She also worked at the Chicago firm Sonnenschein Carlin Nath & Rosenthal during the 1970s. “While I was in law school, I considered practicing later,” Gaskell says, but she decided against it. “Lucky for me because I love what I have been doing.” Gaskell says that the main challenge facing the Supreme Court’s collection is echoed in libraries around the country: how to adapt to an increasingly electronic world. “There need to be good ways to be able to retrieve these documents in the future, especially if they have been cited in briefs and opinions,” Gaskell says. But parts of the collection are so rare that she says it is too risky to limit the records to a computer file. The collection has grown substantially from its original 2,011 volumes. The library was created by an 1832 act of Congress that separated the justices’ volumes from the rest of the Library of Congress. In 1928, the library expanded with American reformer Elbridge Gerry’s donation of 23,000 volumes from his personal collection, including documents that are still being logged in today. (Gerry’s surname entered the American lexicon after his grandfather, also named Elbridge Gerry and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, approved a dramatic rearrangement of district lines, otherwise known as gerrymandering.) Though it currently stands at 500,000 volumes, much of the library’s collection is redundant, Gaskell says. This is a conscious effort in part to satisfy multiple requests of the same resource, she says. Though parts of the collection are accessible to the public, Gaskell estimates that her staff receives only a couple of such requests on an average day. In this way, Gaskell says the library resembles that of a law firm more than an academic facility: with a limited range of requests, she can focus more closely on the depth and specificity of her patrons’ needs. The collection includes a standard wealth of judicial, administrative, and legislative documents from both the state and federal levels, Gaskell says. More unusual historical and contemporary materials that address a range of subjects are included; British law documents are available as well. Gaskell says that converting the range of often-delicate volumes to electronic form first fell to her predecessor, but remains a challenge for her. Rather than risk committing original or obscure documents exclusively to a database, she says her predecessor erred on the side of caution and worked to keep both. MEDIUM ON THE MOVE At the heart of the dilemma is the “transience of electronic-only versions of government documents,” she says, because the electronic medium can change over time, so that what was once easy to access might get locked into a system no longer accessible. Publishing companies, like William S. Hein & Co., are working to preserve and sell print copies of electronic material. Gaskell says she watched the younger students at DePaul rely too heavily on computer databases in their research. While the variety of information it produces is impressive, her patrons’ needs tend to be deeper and more specific, she says, than the Internet alone can handle. Internet databases are “useful in locating pieces of information,” she says, but she needs to “always think in citation and follow-up.” Internet data don’t always offer information in context, she notes. Some of her 29 staff members have worked in the library for years. Gaskell says that they have helped her acclimate to working at the highest court in the land. Not everything at the Court library is supremely serious, of course. Though the justices have their own reading room on the floor below, Gaskell says the bar library on her floor was used by Justice Stephen Breyer earlier this year when he hosted the fourth annual Read Across America event for Arlington schoolchildren. Second-graders from McKinley Elementary School wore the red-and-white striped hats from The Cat in the Hat as they sat, cross-legged, on the floor in front of the justice. Breyer, his own striped hat flopping to the side, read Marshall the Courthouse Mouse: A Tail of the U.S. Supreme Court, in one of a series of nationwide reading events honoring the late Dr. Seuss’ March birthday. “I enjoyed watching it almost as much as the children did,” Gaskell says. “It was a very pleasant change from the normally very quiet reading room atmosphere.” She keeps a framed photo of the event on a shelf behind her desk. In general, she seems to regard the glamour of her job with bemusement rather than with awe. But the low-key Gaskell is gradually beginning to collect her own special Court memories. Kathleen Cullinan is a graduate student at the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism.

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