Thursday, June 21, 2018

A week in the world of Rare Law Books

Every second summer, the Rare Book School offers a weeklong intensive course that legal
From the Special Collections of Yale's Lillian Goldman Law Library
historians should know more about. Designed for librarians, scholars, and collectors, the “Law Books: History and Connoisseurship” course took place at Yale Law School last week (June 11-15, 2018). It was taught by Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, and Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Riesenfeld Rare Books Research Center, University of Minnesota Law Library. This LHB blogger (Mitra Sharafi) took the course. I’m happy to report on its many wonders.

I was the only legal historian in the group of twelve participants. Everyone else was a librarian, whether based at a law library, special collections, or both. When I first heard about the course, I had doubts about how useful it might be for me, given my focus on research and teaching more than on managing collections. Happily, I was wrong to worry. It was fascinating and extremely useful to gain insights into the ways university special collections operate. Among other things, I gained a better sense of which law libraries in the US are actively collecting rare books in various research areas.

More after the jump.

The course also offered a window into the world of rare book dealers and auctions. At one point, we watched an online auction live at Bonhams. A Shakespeare first folio edition with a listed price of $50,000-70,000 sold for for $140,000. The auction was mesmerizing. I could not rip myself away as the auctioneer juggled bids made in advance, in person, online, and by phone. We learned about the competitive and cooperative dynamics between private collectors, institutional buyers, sellers, and auction houses, and how people can move between these categories or sometimes occupy more than one role at once. My worry going in—that I’d develop a taste for collecting—turned out to be a reasonable one. Our final project was to create a collection policy statement describing our dream collection. This was just one of the seeds that the course planted in my mind. If you too could be lured in, check out AddALL, AbeBooks, and the ILAB website. Even if you don't want to collect, you should still search AddALL for books you know once existed but that are not available on Worldcat, Google Books, Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, Making of Modern Law, etc.

I took the course because I wanted to learn more about the history of the book for a project on law publishing in colonial India. Mike and Ryan got me thinking about the book as object—what its size, shape, materials, illustrations, layout, and format can tell us about how people read, learned, shared, practised, contested, avoided, and changed the law. I was wowed by bindings like this and this (there are five other RBS courses on the topic!). I had to pick my jaw up off the ground when Mike and Ryan took us into the storage room of the Yale Law Library’s special collections (you can have a peek here and here). Yale’s Sterling Library has an 1839 printing press from London that is still functioning. We made prints on it. Seeing what went into producing a 7-line document (=3 hours of work) gave me new appreciation for the labor of printing historically. We also explored the history of the publishing industry, and learned about some early female printers like Elizabeth Pickering.

The course was not only useful for my research. It will also change the way I teach. I will try harder in future to include a visit to special collections with every course I teach, or to have a librarian bring (less valuable) items to my class. For my law teaching, I will be searching through my law library’s collection to see if we have any rare books on older cases that appear in our case book. In an increasingly online world, the physical, tactile experience of examining a rare book is new for many students, both in law and in undergraduate legal studies or history programs. I am on the lookout for interesting models of in-class exercises with rare books. There are some interesting ideas here, here, and here.

I also learned about some great sources of images of rare books and manuscripts online. These will be handy for powerpoints for research talks, teaching slides, and blogposts. Here, here, here, and here a few great collections of online images to have on your radar.

Rare law books are also great to showcase vis-à-vis alumni (some of whom may be collectors themselves) and for tours of incoming new students, summer programs, and other groups. Plus: interesting items in your school’s collection can be good topics for stories on your institutional website, magazine, and other outreach venues. Your Special Collections  librarian may consider hosting open house sessions like Ryan Greenwood's monthly ones at Minnesota.

The final thing to say is that the course is focused on law books in Europe and the Americas. For those of us working on other parts of the world, it is true that most of the rare books featured in the course will not fall within our research region. Even so, what I learned about the history of the law book and publishing will help me develop my own knowledge of South Asian law books in the future. And being aware of the technical terms for rare book cataloguing will help me if (when?) I dip my toe into collecting.

A few legal historians have taken the course over the years, but more of us should. The tuition is not insignificant, but RBS courses seem to be extremely professional and polished. You can also apply for a scholarship, although note that the deadline in 2018 was several months earlier than the program application deadline.

Spending a week in Rare Law Bookland was a highlight of my summer. Here is more on the week by Ryan Greenwood over at the Riesenfeld Rare Books Blog. 

Legal historians: your next chance will be in summer 2020.