Two Cats, a Guy, and a Law Library: Learning a New Law Library in a New State

By Kurt Meyer
Research Librarian

Chastek Library, Gonzaga University School of Law

As many of you know, I left the University of Maryland for a job in the Northwest last June.   I loved working at Maryland, my first job out of library school, but it was time to move on.  So my two cats and I trekked across the country in my little Mazda and eventually landed in Spokane, Washington, the home of Gonzaga’s Chastek Law Library.  During the journey, the cats primarily seemed to be concerned with escaping from their carrier, crying, and smelling every single thing in each of our five hotel rooms.  But along the way, when I wasn’t distracted by tortured meows from my pets, I started to think about the challenges I would face when starting my new job.  Since learning the Thurgood Marshall Law Library was a memorable challenge, I thought about how I could use my experience there to more efficiently learn a new library in a new state.

1.        Every Library Has Its Quirks

In my first week, my new boss Pat Charles gave me tour of my new library and, as a result, I had a lot of questions.  This is because the Chastek Law Library, like any other, has its own unique set of quirks.  For example, we have two reading rooms.  One has legal treatises and the other has Washington materials.  We also have similar materials on reserve and on the third floor, which is admittedly confusing.  Pat emphasized to me that I would need to pay close attention to these details when working the reference desk, otherwise I would likely send patrons to the wrong places or take too long.  To compensate, I spent a lot of time on my own browsing the shelves to learn where everything was.  I even compiled a list of key materials and forced myself to physically find them in the library.

My first reference shifts at Chastek went more smoothly than when I first arrived at Maryland as a newly minted law librarian.  I remember having problems with locations there, and that was because I didn’t take the initiative to find the physical locations of key resources before I had to.  I consider this to be one of the most important parts of learning a new library.

2.          Learn the Catalog

Right now you’re probably saying, “Well of course I know to do that.”  But I really wanted to know the catalog inside and out.  One of my first projects in my new job was to use the catalog to find all of our BNA materials, list them, and then talk to acquisitions to see if we had standing orders.  This project was given to me for two reasons:  First, no one else wanted to do it and, second, it would help me learn the catalog.

Without going into all the details, I have to say doing this really helped a lot.  I learned about the catalog and its quirks.  Again, I feel like this went a lot more smoothly than when I arrived at Maryland in 2007.  Don’t get me wrong, I learned that catalog well.  But I did most of it while I was working reference, so it was a little stressful at times.  Having a large project like this to immerse me was a much better way to do it.

3.        Learn the New State

This was really important to me.  Nothing will frustrate patrons more than when you start asking them questions about law.  Determined to hit the ground running, I came up with an idea for how to learn Washington law and government in a hurry.

I came up with what amounted to a Washington legal research exam for myself.  I forced myself to research everything from landlord-tenant law to sales taxes and then did legislative history research when appropriate.  I asked my fellow librarians for help only when I was completely stumped, knowing that I learn more when I figure things out for myself.  Then I put together an informal write-up of my research process just as I’ve had my students do in the past.

I cannot fully articulate how helpful this was.  Instead of having these issues come up at the reference desk and then having to call for help, I got this out of the way when it was convenient.


I started work at the Chastek Law Library on July 11.  I had a little over a month before the students returned, but I was slammed with research requests from faculty and projects at the outset.  Even though I did not have a lot of time, I made it a point to learn my new library and new state.  I tried to keep the fact I’d have a steep learning curve in mind at all times.  I also was not afraid to ask questions, even stupid ones.  I hope some of these tips, which for the most part are the product of experience, can help someone else who changes libraries and/or states.