An incredible perk to Notre Dame Law School is the ability to do targeted reading. With directed reading, you develop a research proposal and write a well-founded paper on the subject, which is personally led by a professor of your choice. At the end of the semester, 10,000 words of work equals two credits and an incredible experience. This semester I’m doing a direct reading with Professor AJ Bellia who was my professor of constitutional law 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 Kevin Cotter, the Michigan State representative who was my school representative at the time, the Michigan State Senator Judy Emmons, who was my Senator at the time, and a number of other local politicians in Lansing. One of Representative Cotter’s staff led us through our visit, and one of my most vivid memories of that experience to date has been the story he told of how the Michigan legislature would address the deadlock on budget deadlines by literally keeping the clock in the mid-2000s in their legislative chambers. The idea that legislative process, whether formal or informal, could regard a legislature as empowered to control time itself fascinated me then and has fascinated me to this day, so I knew I had to write about it. And what better way to do that than to register for a specific reading?
Last month when my guided reading began, I began researching these questions. Although I found a few clues, finding it proved a little difficult. Since the standstill of time is a kind of legal fiction, the practice is not always easily accessible from officially documented experience.
Then I had a light bulb moment. If Rep. Cotter’s advisor first heard the story of Michigan’s lawmakers stopping the clock as a personal anecdote, could there be others across the country who are similarly positioned? I started visiting the websites of the legislatures of different states and found that almost every state in the Union has either an official law library with academic librarians on its staff, or an official state library that performs a similar function. I was able to find a contact person for each state and send an email looking for information about the standstill of time.
I couldn’t have expected what would happen next. I thought maybe two or three would get in touch with a short story, something that would allow me to dig further myself to find more useful information. Rather, at the time of this writing, I had correspondence with 34 research librarians, from Alaska to Wyoming and everywhere in between. Your findings have been an absolute godsend, and I know beyond a doubt that thanks to your contributions, I will have a much stronger paper.
As a result of this effort, I have come to an important conclusion: I love research librarians. When I told Brandy Ellis, one of Notre Dame Law School’s incredible research librarians, about this series of events, she stated that the nature of these librarians’ response to my request is a hallmark of the profession, given that librarians are passionate about securing the Freedom is characteristic of information as best it can. I really believe there is something to this categorical imperative. We would all do well to take a few pages from the Research Librarian Playbook.
First, research librarians are curious. The Tennessee research librarian noted that he had never been consulted on anything like my research topic before, and yet he guided me through the history of Tennessee practice, including a picture of Tennessee’s legislative clock being physically stopped. While the Arkansas Legislative Research Director had no evidence of a time freeze in Arkansas, not only did he comment on his fascination with my research direction, but he forwarded my request to the Arkansas Senate Secretary. (She emailed herself.) Reading the responses from many of these librarians, it really felt like these research librarians were viewing my request as an opportunity to either help me learn something new, or to learn something new myself. We would do well to approach the many life experiences we encounter – we can and should regularly choose to cultivate an eager curiosity about the world around us.
Second, research librarians are thorough. Again, perhaps I was expecting a personal anecdote here, a passing story to answer that question. But to take just one example, a Missouri research librarian responded with a wonderfully prosaic summary of the many times Missouri had participated in the practice, backed by eleven news excerpts for me to quote as I develop this paper. Research librarians from 14 other countries sent specific documentation in response to my question, not counting the many others who provided useful links for more information. How often do we cling so tightly to a persecution that we do not let go until we have reached its full and true end?
Third, research librarians are most helpful. The approaches by which these research librarians responded to my request were all unique, but what they all had in common was that they expressed an authentic desire to help. These officials lived in their own way the commandment of Christ to love our neighbor as ourselves. Where my life collided with theirs in our constant search for information, I received help and support from all directions. It didn’t matter that digging a little deeper would have found at least some of what these librarians were delivering; they came to my aid willingly and willingly anyway. This willingness to help a complete stranger taught me a lesson far more important than any of the myriad of research leads I have received from these amazing people.
And so I thank you, United States research librarians, especially those I was in touch with last month, for the incredible work you are doing. My experiences this week have given me a new appreciation for your profession thanks to your strong collective zeal for the exchange of knowledge and information. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have drawn from this series of encounters is this zeal. St. Maximilian Kolbe said that in the union of the will of God (capital W) with our own will (small w) we find holiness – in short “W + w = S”. Readers of this column, as we discover where God is calling us professionally this week, we should take the time to ponder our little will. More specifically, where in our own lives do we have the zeal of a scientific librarian? Where can we be most authentically curious, thorough and helpful? If we can combine this zeal, wherever it is to be found, with the voice of God calling us to ourselves, I truly believe that we will find ourselves on the path to holiness.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.