Law Librarian Amanda watson wears many hats
Amanda Watson grew up wanting to wanting to leave Mississippi behind, and thought she'd become a teacher or a lawyer. After majoring in music education and graduating from law school (and teaching all the while), she realized that the aspects of law she enjoyed were the research and fact-finding. Thinking back to a student job at the Ole Miss law library, she decided to become a law librarian. Today, she happily lives with her son and her partner in New Orleans as the Associate Director of the Tulane University School of Law Library.
FAST FACTS ABOUT Amanda
Where she’s from: rural Mississippi
Grew up with: mom and dad, four older siblins
Education: Bachelor’s degree in music education from the Mississippi University for Women, JD from the University of Mississippi, and a master's in library and information science from Florida State University
Where she lives now: New Orleans, Louisiana
Growing up she wanted to be: maybe a teacher or lawyer
Now she’s: Associate Director of the Tulane University School of Law Library
Tell us about yourself growing up!
I was definitely a nerdy girl. I read a lot. High school was not my thing. I’m the baby of five children and all of my older siblings were on the homecoming court and they were majorettes, and I was in the marching band.
The best way to describe it is happily a nerd and definitely a bookworm from the very beginning. I can remember always reading. We didn’t really have a TV when I was little, and then we had one of those like you click the dial TVs, so we always read. The library was always a big deal because it was free. We were not wealthy people, and I can remember books being really important to me way, way back.
How did you feel about school?
I didn’t really like much about school because I went to a really rural public school. Although there were some lovely people there, it was certainly not a challenging academic environment. I always depended on an individual curiosity for education. Even now, I’ll know a word but I don’t know how to pronounce it; I’ve only read it.
What else were you involved in outside of school?
I was always in music. I grew up in a very religious place so I was at church a lot and doing things with my church youth group a lot. I had a little group of friends and they were also nerds, and we would watch Sense and Sensibility together and nerd out. I definitely was not the one to go cruise around town and go to parties.
Who were some of the adults who were important to you when you were growing up?
My mother is a very strong woman and is definitely forefront in my life still, my very next oldest sister as well; I’m still very close to. There was always this group of super strong women around me, and then a couple teachers, but they were just super strong, independent, liberal, who really helped shape me as a person.
How did you choose to go to the Mississippi University for Women?
The junior year of high school they do a program where you go and you’re actually on campus taking classes. Because of my GPA and scores I got recruited for that, and really any chance to get out of my little town I was going to take. I didn’t have to work all summer? I’ll do it.
I fell in love with the campus. I got to know some of the instructors there and really just had a feel for it. I considered other schools. The W gave me a full ride so that was that. My parents really believed in education, but we always knew there was no money for us to go to school so if we wanted to go we were going to have to be able to pay for it. I feel really lucky for having ended up there because it’s such a sweet place.
How did you decide to major in music education?
I got a scholarship. It was really that simple. I sang in my little church choir and a woman sort of “discovered” me as a singer and started entering me in competitions, and I got a voice coach, and then I got a scholarship to go to college, and that’s what put me through college.
I didn’t really know that I could sing -- I loved to sing with the radio -- but I didn’t know I could sing until this lady told me.
What made you choose to attend law school right after undergrad?
I was always a strong analytical, reasoning, that-side-of-the-brain person. I took the LSAT, I did really well, I got in and that was what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to be poor because I had grown up that way. I knew that being a lawyer was a good living and I always liked to argue. I actually really enjoyed law school.
What did you like about being in law school?
You’re asking these big questions: “Let’s all explore what culpability means.” I had constitutional law where you’re digging into these big, “is this art offensive?” It was really interesting to tackle with a room full of people who were as nerdy and energetic as I was, so that was a lot of fun for me.
What did you do after law school?
I clerked for the Court of Appeals. You read cases that have already been decided and you look at the full trial record of that case. Each judge is going to be different in what they want from their clerks. My judge really wanted us to help him with research and be really up to date on everything that happened. It was a lot of what I do now, research and fact finding, it played more to my strengths than actually being on the phone and negotiating. All that stuff just drove me crazy about practice.
What type of law did you practice?
I was practicing domestic. I thought that was the way to really make a difference in people’s lives. You’re there at this horrible time in their life and you can help them through this. You’re with someone when they’re at their worst, and you have to be their guide through this process where they’re making terrible choices over and over. It was tough.
Do you have to be a lawyer to be a law librarian?
"You do need the library degree. There are librarians at corporate and state levels who don’t necessarily have a law degree. You can work at certain levels, but you can’t get to the top of law librarianship without a law degree. So if you want to be a director, associate director, head of public service, you do. "
How did you get into the information science and library side of law?
I needed a job in law school and the American Bar Association doesn’t like for you to go wait tables, which is what I’d always fallen back on before, so I got a job in the law library working at the circulation desk. I really liked it, but I didn’t really ever think of it again after graduation.
When I knew I wanted to leave practice, I saw this wonderful occupational therapist type person who said, “can you remember the last time you looked forward to going to work?” and I jokingly said, “well, I really liked being a student assistant at the law library, ha, ha, ha.” He was like, “well, is that a real career? Is that something that people do?” And I was like, “well, yeah.”
Luckily there was a big law firm in town who was hiring for a regional law librarian. I worked there for eight years and learned everything there was to know about law librarianship from the other law librarians there and it was a pretty great experience.
You went to library school while you worked. How did it work being enrolled in a program in Florida and living in Mississippi?
Library school is pretty tailored to do in an online environment because we have to do a lot of online things anyway. I went to Florida State, which is a great library school, and they had a very good track record with their online program. I learned so much. I had such good professors. It was a great experience and it allowed me to work all day, go to school at night. I finished just as my son was born.
How did you get started teaching?
I student taught in undergrad and I never stopped teaching. I would cover somebody’s maternity leave and make some money that way. When I was at Ole Miss, I taught legal research as a student for two years, so I have always taught a little bit. I ended up teaching at Florida State while I was there, too.
You’re now the Associate Director of the Law Library at Tulane. How did that come about?
I got the chance to come to Tulane and couldn’t pass it up. Tulane has such a great reputation and I really liked them when I came to visit and really felt like I had a lot to offer this place, which is really important to me, and they had a lot to offer me, so it was a right fit. People don’t leave this kind of job so I knew I had to take it when I could so I came running.
I was hired on as a Librarian 3 and there are only four grades of librarian at Tulane, so I was hired on as high as people generally go because I had enough experience to do that. Librarians at Tulane have library tenure. I have tenure, and I can’t be fired without cause, which is the same as with academic tenure.
I wear flats to work every day because I run from when I get here to when I leave.
How do you divide your time between teaching, administration, and librarian work?
It really is probably pretty evenly split between those things. I pretty much do all the day-to-day operations of the library, everything from this employee needs to be motivated to get this task done, all the way down to who didn’t order the paper to put in the Xerox machines; everything on the administrative side. I manage 12 people, plus student workers, so it’s actually probably 20 bodies.
I also teach first year legal research and advanced legal research. I sit reference and do regular librarian work. I wear flats to work every day because I run from when I get here to when I leave. I really never know from day to day what I’m going to be doing.
I’m really lucky at this point that I can make my hours as long as I’m getting everything done and people are getting what they need from me. I get here around 9 and I usually leave between 5 and 6. If I want to take a day off, I can. I get some administrative time off to write because I am expected to publish a little bit since I’m also on a faculty track.
I have not ever regretted leaving practice because even though sometimes I have been wistful about the money, I’ve never been wistful about just being a lawyer.
What keeps you interested in your work as a law librarian?
The field of librarianship is evolving really rapidly. What are we going to be like next year and the next year and the next year? How are services going to change and evolve? We actually have the funding to test some of our theories about what our patrons want and don’t want. That’s what keeps me here.
Librarianship I love because you have interaction with the public, you have colleagues that are working toward an idealistic thing of imparting information. All the things I thought I wanted about being a lawyer were actually here.
I really like being able to push programs; I really like being able to be creative. It doesn’t have a lot to do with nontangible things like ego or achievements. If you don’t really love what you’re doing, and you don’t have time to go home and be with your family it’s not super worth it to me. I have not ever regretted leaving practice because even though sometimes I have been wistful about the money, I’ve never been wistful about just being a lawyer. I know it’s not what would’ve made me happy.
What fills your time outside of work?
I’m happily partnered up with a Wellesley grad, and we have a baby on the way and then I have a son, George, who’s 10. We have a great group of friends here in New Orleans and we love to just be in the city. We love to travel. I still read constantly. We love to cook and we love to entertain. We’re always having people over and having dinner and having cocktail parties, so that’s always a lot of fun too.
How did you imagine your adult life when you were in high school? How does your life now compare?
Being as far away from Mississippi as I could was as far as I got. I didn’t necessarily think about what job I was going to do; I didn’t have a really definitive plan. I just knew I wanted to leave. I still live in the South. Maybe I didn’t get that far away from home.
I grew up in a place where, as a woman, you have these landmarks that you’re supposed to hit. In my early 30s I really figured out that there was nothing for me in hitting these landmarks, even though I had done exactly what was expected of me. I had a beautiful child, but the rest of it didn’t really mean anything to me. I broke out of this mold and went to law librarianship and moved to this tiny apartment, but I was super happy.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if what you thought you wanted just holds nothing for you. Do what makes you happy and satisfied and the rest is just the rest. If you’re miserable, what’s the point?
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a librarian, particularly a law librarian?
Whenever I interview [candidates] for jobs I always have people that are like, “I love to read so I’d love to work in a library.” I think, “you’re not going to have time to read; it’s not going to be like you’re just reading for pleasure while you’re at work.” See if there’s somewhere you can volunteer or work as a student so that you can see what it’s like day in and day out.
I think you have to understand that you’re going to be this person who has a law degree that doesn’t really use your law degree. You’re going to do all this training and then not use it.
I had this great library teacher who said, “If you’re the person when you’re in a foreign country that gets asked for directions, you’re a librarian.” You have that face; you have that personality and people can just approach you and ask you for help.
Know there are good things about wherever you are if you can let yourself see them.
What advice would you give somebody who is like you were growing up?
Seek out people who get you or who see who you are. I met a wonderful librarian who gave me my first Jane Austen book and from an early age I understood Jane Austen was funny because of Miss Varnel, She moved me into reading more and more. Seek people out like that. Your life will change and you’ll get out. Now when I go home I can appreciate what Mississippi has instead of always thinking about what it doesn’t have. Know there are good things about wherever you are if you can let yourself see them.
Figure it out as you go along. What kind of work you want to do, what do you actually want to do every day? What do you want to be? Do you want to sit in a chair and talk on the phone? I had no idea. I went from being a music major to going into law school to then falling gracefully into this career and loving it. You can’t care about what other people think of your job from your parents to anybody.
You have to know what you want to do and go for it. Even if it’s a pretty big change or more school after you’ve already done enough school for two people, you just have to take a deep breath and know if it’s right for you. That’s what you need to do because who knows what they want to be when they’re 18? Very few people.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out books Amanda loves and find out more about her!