Cecilia Brown, the Special Collections archivist, politely interrupted Taylor Fitchett's conversation. She needed her boss' signature on some paperwork.
"If it weren't for her, I would have gotten an 'F' when I started," Fitchett said of Brown.
Fitchett, who has directed the library at the University of Virginia School of Law since 2000, is deferential to her team in this way. She prefers the focus be anywhere but on herself. In fact, she prefaced an interview about her career with the accomplishments of the other directors that came before her.
Frances Farmer took the library from 25,000 to 100,000 pieces.
Larry Wenger to more than 800,000.
Fitchett will retire this month as the third full-time director of the Arthur J. Morris Law Library. In two decades, she and her 26-member staff have built a collection that supports the modernized research and teaching of the Law School community. All the while, she has done so with an eye for utilizing resources and talent to their maximum effect.
Not that she would ever say that herself.
Rather, for her, it's more about the institution. "When you're a top-10 law school, you have responsibilities you don't have at other schools," she said.
A "greatest hits" compilation of achievements under her tenure — which she stresses are team achievements — includes:
- hiring key staff, including empirical research experts and digital librarians, to fuel modernization efforts;
- digitizing hidden treasures in the Library's Special Collections, including the Tokyo war crimes trial collection and digital exhibition; a database of drafting histories from post-World War II human rights treaties, known as the Travaux Préparatoires; and a database of legal documents from Scotland's Court of Session;
- creating the Legal Data Lab, whose staff have generated several research databases, such as Professor Brandon Garrett's corporate prosecutions registry;
- building a collection of Thomas Jefferson's preferred law books, known as the 1828 Catalog, in their original editions and with a digital bookshelf;
- publishing "The Diary of a Dean," a book featuring the lifelong journal entries of the Law School's first dean, William Minor Lile (who served 1904-32); and
- publishing a book on the history of the Law School's buildings (with two more UVA Law historical books on the way).
The technological progress the library has made is the result of Fitchett's ability to spot trends, then get ahead of them.
"I was on the bleeding edge of digital technology in the early days," she said. "I knew that digitization was the path libraries would take, but I wasn't sure where to start or how to start, and I didn't have the money to buy any of the hardware or software needed. I squeezed nickels and lived on credit for a while, but a few years after we started piecing things together we had our first page of scanned, searchable text. Our team had landed on the moon!"
These days, Fitchett is an acknowledged leader in her field, despite having been told once by a colleague many years ago, "You seem like a person who got on the wrong train and decided she's going to find out where it's going."
She at first took the comment as a slight. Only later did she embrace the thought as a meditation on how life so often unfolds.
A Richmond native, Fitchett worked in main campus libraries for 10 years before serving in a law library. She was associate librarian at Tulane Law School and library director at the University of Alabama and University of Cincinnati law schools. She joined the UVA Law Library as associate librarian in 1998, becoming director two years later.
To her mind, many of the library's successes are the fulfillment of a pair of goals she set after former Dean Robert Scott asked her to consider the job, and she accepted.
The first was to assemble a team of "the best legal researchers to be found anywhere."
The second was to develop the library's electronic resources with an eye for long-term preservation. For most law schools, this kind of heavy lifting is often left to the school's main library, because of a lack of resources. And libraries might have different priorities about which projects should come first.
But "collections can get buried forever if you don't do this work," she said.
Loren Moulds, digital collections librarian and the head of digital scholarship and preservation at UVA Law, said Fitchett "recognized that the materials within Special Collections had significant potential research value" and "believed that leveraging the power of new technologies to enhance access to our collections could expand their value."
As one example of the collections' use, scholars have utilized the Tokyo war crimes materials to produce eight books to date.
Moulds added that the collections complement the library's "already stellar research and reference services."
Fitchett is willing to agree that she has a keen eye for identifying resources. She calls it "beating the bushes." Whenever she has needed something, she has asked around. That has included human resources.
"If I have one talent, it's finding the right person for the position," she said.
On a given project, she would set a direction but not provide a checklist, because she wanted to foster creativity and innovation.
"I don't tell people I want A, B, C and D — or I won't get E," she said.
Before library directors, the professors used to be in charge of the library. These days, there's too much information, too little time.
Students come to the library with all sort of questions and service needs.
And professors, even those skilled in research, sometimes suffer from "informational anxiety," she said. They don't want to miss any material germane to their argument, yet they don't want to level their argument with competing views, either.
"You've got to find a starting place," she said. That's where the library can help most.
She credits Head of Research Services Kent Olson, whom she calls "the No. 1 research librarian in the country," with training the library's staff, who come from different backgrounds — providing a baseline that allows everyone to help out in a pinch. (Olson is the author of the well-known book "Legal Research in a Nutshell.")
Most questions are answered within the day.
Projects requiring vast amounts of information take more time, but nothing has gotten wasted under Fitchett's watch. If a professor needs help building a database — whether it's Mila Versteeg's work on the Travaux Préparatoires (the U.N. human rights preparatory documents) or Garrett's review of how white-collar crime has been prosecuted — the information is compiled in an accessible way, then typically made available for others.
"Why not put those [databases] up for another scholar to use?" Fitchett said.
She added, "If we tried to exist without being part of the intellectual life of the Law School, we would not exist."
Versteeg, a Carnegie Fellow, said the Law Library's services have been invaluable to her work.
"I think the Law Library at UVA is one of the best in the country," Versteeg said. "Without the library's efforts [on the Travaux Préparatoires], this research would have never happened. The documents were scattered around the world on microfiche and were not electronically available, so they were basically impossible to get. The library coordinated with the U.N. to get these documents. They had a company in India scan them, cleaned them up and made them searchable. I think that's quite unique."
Although one might hear the occasional "shh" at the library — Fitchett said even she got shushed one time by a student stressing before exams — no one ever hears, "I'm sorry, we can't help you" in response to a request.
In terms of resources, that has sometimes meant being creative with her budget. In 2011, Fitchett published a paper about her savvy approach, "Creative Use of Your Library's Resources Within Your Institution's Fiscal Framework," in Law Library Journal.
"I never wanted to tell a student we didn't have the money to get something for them," she said.
Research Librarian Kristen Glover said she has been impressed by how Fitchett has tried to build a culture that is welcoming to students and inclusive of their interests beyond just basic services. Examples have included a break room with free coffee just for them, mindfulness workshops, a DVD collection for when students need to relax, and expanded carrels, standing desks and study room space.
"Taylor has a real dedication to students' well-being," Glover said.
She also has cared for the greater school environment — including its art and preservation.
She has long served on the Law School's art committee, which decides placement of artwork and display items around the school. (It helps that the library is in charge of all the stuff that is donated to the school — everything from an extensive photo collection by groundbreaking photojournalist André Kertész to a shotgun once owned by Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, which was a gift from his fellow justices.)
Her favorite pieces in the Law School's collections are the diary entries of Dean William Minor Lile because of their scope — "You can't read them without knowing who he was," she said — and a copy of a letter signed by Thomas Jefferson (discovered by Brown, the archivist).
The latter artifact rested on her desk for three days as she pondered how it connected her to the past.
During her time, Fitchett has also made it a priority to see that the most important histories of the Law School be written, with an emphasis on the school's humanity. The library has begun a three-part book series on the history of the Law School, and has produced historical displays and other curated collections.
"The Law Library not only provides unparalleled research support, it also serves as the collective memory for the Law School," Dean Risa Goluboff said. "In other words, Taylor does not just wait for faculty and students to come to the library. She brings the library and all its riches into our daily lives, and we are all the better for it."
Fitchett said she has been fortunate to have served under deans like Goluboff who have understood the Library's educational mission.
Dean John C. Jeffries Jr. followed Scott and was a "big supporter," helping to make library salaries competitive with other top law schools'; Dean Paul Mahoney saw the library through challenging financial times; and Goluboff, a legal historian who "probably used the library more than anyone" before she became dean, has continued the tradition of support.
"The Law Library outstripped any library services I had ever encountered, and it has only continued to get better and better over the last 15 years," Goluboff said. "When I started here as a professor, I immediately became known as 'a heavy library user,' and it has redounded to my enormous benefit ever since. The Law Library makes faculty scholarship possible and it welcomes and guides our students in the world of legal research. It is a true gem of the Law School, and that is because of Taylor's vision and execution.
"We will miss Taylor dearly, but she leaves behind a legacy of excellence and ambition that I know will continue to benefit us for years to come."
Fitchett said she has felt the gratitude of the general faculty and students too throughout the years, often in the form of thank-you notes and acknowledgements in publications for her and the staff.
In her final year of service, Fitchett's library team members are: Jim Ambuske, Leslie Ashbrook, Jon Ashley, Tim Breeden, Cecilia Brown, Ben Doherty, Randi Flaherty, Anne Gaulding, Kristin Glover, Kip Gobin, Rebecca Hawes, Diane Huntley, Alex Jakubow, Katherine Jenkins, Diana Kiesler, Michael Klepper, Xinh Luu, Loren Moulds, Kent Olson, Cathy Palombi, John Roper, Anita Seale, Marnita Simpson, Joy West, Amy Wharton and Carol Sue Wood (and many "wonderful" student workers).
Fitchett said she hopes to be remembered as "a decent person" and "a good trustee of the extraordinary Arthur J. Morris Law Library."
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.