CALL Member Heidi Kuehl Appointed NIU Law Library Director

CALL member Heidi Frostestad Kuehl recently joined the Northern Illinois University (NIU) College of Law as an associate professor and the director of the law library. Prior to joining NIU, Heidi was the associate director for research and reference services and the foreign, comparative, and international law librarian at Northwestern University’s law library. 

Heidi has also worked as a law librarian for Marquette University and taught international legal research at the John Marshall Law School. Heidi received her M.A. in Library Science from the University of Iowa, and her J.D. from Valparaiso University. CALL Bulletin Committee member Kara Dunn recently caught up with Heidi to find out how she is settling into her new role.

KD: Congratulations on your new position! What is a typical day in the life of an academic law library director like?

HK: Thank you! I don’t know if there is a “typical day,” but I would say that it’s a rigorous and fun balancing act of:

  • supporting law school faculty and student research;
  • teaching and formulating the best curricular goals for basic and advanced research instruction; and
  • carving out time for writing formal and informal reports or drafting my own ideas for scholarship, research, and writing.

In addition, each day has a mixture of meetings, presentations, strategic planning, teaching, addressing facility issues or other space planning questions, and ongoing projects for various constituents within the law school and the university community.

KD: What are you enjoying most about your new position, so far?

HK: I really enjoy the wonderful people at the NIU College of Law—the law librarians, faculty, students, and staff are really gems—as well as the strategic planning opportunities and teaching new courses (this fall I’m teaching a law and technology seminar course). I also enjoy working with an innovative dean who is forward-looking, anticipating the myriad changes in legal education, and consciously planning for student success upon graduation. It’s a very student-centered law school, which is definitely something that I like and value about NIU as an institution.

KD: What aspects of your new position have been surprising or unexpectedly challenging?

HK: As everyone apprised me before I became a director, you never realize how much of your day will be devoted to meetings. You must have creative time management skills to fit everything else into your day! I enjoy working with people, though, so I don’t mind the meetings or office chats. I think that meetings are critical for effective planning and reaching goals within departments.

It has also been refreshing to switch gears and challenge myself with the wide variety of management issues, such as collaborating across departments, building projects and renovations for the law library, strategic planning, and meeting expectations on personnel issues. I strive to create a collaborative atmosphere and team mentality on projects in the law library.

KD: In addition to being the law library director, you are also a member of the law school faculty. What duties or obligations do you have as a faculty member?

HK: As a tenure-track faculty member, I have an obligation to actively serve on law school committees and build upon the record of teaching excellence and service to the law school community. I also have an obligation to publish regularly in journals or write book chapters in order to achieve tenure and to pass the tenure review committee’s standards for my eventual tenure review cycle.

KD: What are you enjoying about living and working in Dekalb?

HK: I work in DeKalb and live in Sycamore, a cute town about 10 miles away. I enjoy working in DeKalb because it is a historic, vibrant, and quaint college town. It has a lot of culture and diversity through the law school and other departments within the university, so I don’t find myself missing Chicago that much (although I do make periodic trips to Chicago to visit friends or go to art museums or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). I really enjoy the small-town atmosphere and charm of Dekalb—it reminds me a lot of growing up in Iowa. Everything is quite navigable with low-stress, and everyone is very friendly. I appreciate that after the hustle and bustle of the city!

KD: You were previously the associate director for research and reference services at Northwestern. What will you miss most about reference work?

HK: I will definitely miss the very unique and challenging foreign and international law questions that I received from the law library patrons at Northwestern, and I will also miss working on large research projects. I always learned so much from those stimulating projects, and was always learning something new about the law through my reference work there.

However, I am now embracing the new management opportunities and stretching myself in new ways via strategic planning, curriculum development, and teaching different types of courses in my fields of interest. These new challenges are very invigorating and make it exciting to come to work each day. I really am enjoying it!

KD: How will you incorporate your extensive background in foreign, comparative, and international law into your new role?

HK: Foreign, Comparative, and International Law (FCIL) is a passion of mine, so I do seek out opportunities to integrate it into my new role here at NIU. I have found ways to incorporate my FCIL interests through publishing and research projects. For example, I am working on a new book on international legal research with Megan O’Brien at Marquette, and am beginning to write articles on private international law and law and technology. Also, next spring I will teach international business transactions as a professor here at NIU. This has always been a dream of mine, and I am very grateful for the opportunity. The NIU College of Law administration has been very supportive of my FCIL research and teaching goals.

KD: Was becoming an academic law library director a long-term goal of yours? If so, what steps did you take to prepare for this opportunity?

HK: Yes, I think that I always semi-consciously kept management and becoming a law library director in my mind’s eye as a long-term goal. In the beginning, though, I purely wanted to be an excellent law librarian and develop my teaching and advanced research skills. I had the tremendous opportunity to work with some terrific reference librarians at both Marquette and Northwestern, and I learned a great deal from them.

I also actively sought out opportunities to take on formal or informal leadership roles within the institutions where I worked and the associations that I am a member of, such as AALL and CALL. I think that it’s important to gain leadership experience slowly, observe good leadership in others, and build a repertoire of various leadership activities and roles to diversify your management skill set. Then you will be truly ready to lead as a director and be more agile when dealing with difficult or unexpected management issues.

KD: Any advice for law librarians who are interested in becoming academic law library directors?

HK: I would recommend networking with and learning from those in management roles, actively seeking out formal or informal management positions, and consciously building your résumé with teaching opportunities and experience with coordinating projects and seeing them to successful fruition. It’s important to gain some experience in management to see if you actually like managing!

I also think that it’s realistic to recognize that the next management opportunity will not necessarily be at your own institution, and to actively pursue any positions that might be interesting to you in other law libraries. Law schools may actively seek law library directors from outside their own institution because they have a real need for a fresh vision and new direction for their programming, and I would speculate that only a fraction of sitting directors were promoted from within their institution. Ultimately, there are more opportunities if you are willing to look outside of your own institution.

It can also be very helpful to gain experience from several different academic institutions. You will gain a foundational knowledge of several different institutions’ cultures, plus a breadth of experience with and knowledge of sophisticated research projects, which demonstrates an ability to work well with others in academia. You will also have a variety of experiences to draw on when solving challenging problems, brainstorming solutions, negotiating strategic planning processes, engaging in difficult conversations with students and faculty, or negotiating contracts with vendors.

KD: A recent issue of the AALL Spectrum included an article on the importance of mentorship. Do you have a mentor who helped you get to this point in your career? How has mentorship aided or impacted your professional development?

HK: Yes, I’ve been very fortunate to have a host of mentors and folks that I admire in law librarianship. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from all of them and observed many leadership styles. There are too many to name, so I’ll just name a few directors from Marquette and Northwestern who guided my career and encouraged me without fail:  Patricia Cervenka at Marquette, and Chris Simoni, Jim McMasters, Eloise Vondruska, and George Pike at Northwestern. These individuals were all invaluable in encouraging my career and skill development. All of them provided guidance and extensive professional development support in my pursuit of leadership roles throughout various stages of my career, and I really look up to all of them as mentors and all-around wonderful law librarians and professors. There are many others, though, in other doctrinal fields of the law at Northwestern and Marquette who provided me with great examples of leadership and tireless work ethics—there are too many of those visionaries to name, but they are not without their impact.

I think that it’s important to actively seek out advice and stay in touch with all of your mentors, and remember that becoming a director doesn’t happen overnight. You must be tenacious and keep your goal in sight. Keep supporters in your midst, and please contact me if you need another cheerleader! I’m glad to give any advice that might be helpful or share more details of my journey. It’s been an adventure for me, but it’s an extremely rewarding career!  I just love being a law librarian and providing mentorship to others. I feel that it’s my way to “give back” to the profession.

KD:  Thank you for your wonderful insights, Heidi, and best of luck in the coming year!