Yale Conference on Rare Books Report

Thanks to a grant from CALL, I was able to attend the “Law Books: History & Connoisseurship” course at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut from June 10 – 15, 2018. Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian and Lecturer in Legal Research at Yale Law Library, and Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota Law Library, co-taught the course. They were assisted by Douglas Lind, Director of the Law Library and Professor of Law at Southern Illinois University School of Law and AALL award-winning author of the two-volume work Lincoln’s Suspension of Habeas Corpus.

Course materials included a bibliography of essential readings such as the ABC for Book Collectors and materials on book collecting, Anglo-American law, and Roman, canon, and civil law (including links to full texts when available), as well as links to online exhibits.

I was one of twelve participants. This year’s class included a law rare books cataloger, a legal historian, a law student, a University rare book librarian, several academic law librarians, and foreign, comparative, and international law (FCIL) librarians. Most of us were there to fill in gaps and build on our skills related to rare law books.

Morris L. Cohen and David Warrington taught the first iteration of the Yale Law rare book course, Collecting the History of Anglo-American Law, from 1989-2006. Mike Widener taught the current iteration of the course, Law Books: History & Connoisseurship, alone in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2016. Douglas Lind was a Rare Book School (RBS) “follower” (i.e., he assisted Mike with the course) in 2016 when my colleague, Bill Schwesig attended through a CALL grant. [Bill’s Grantee Report]. This year, 2018, was the first time Mike brought on a co-instructor, Ryan Greenwood (the co-faculty approach worked very well, I think). Scholarships and grants are available to attend the law rare book school, but be sure to apply early if you are interested in taking the course.

The emphasis of the course per Mike is on “building interesting collections of law books — not just spending money, but taking a fresh look at your collection — building focused collections – more special than rare”. Mike Widener’s Rare Books Blog and Flickr collections of images are excellent examples of how to promote the special collections you build using social media.

During the week-long, intensive course, we learned about the following: the history of law publishing and printers, the history of law through books, the book as a physical object and an artifact, how to read rare book dealers’ catalogs, basic rare book terminology (vellum is animal skin…), rare law book finding aids and bibliographies, things to look for in selecting rare law books, and how to create a collection plan.

Because of my area of FCIL specialty, I was particularly interested in the lectures on Roman-Canon Law Books & Manuscripts, European and Latin American Law, and International Law. And because I have bibliographer/book selection responsibilities, I found the section on the antiquarian market, competitive pricing, what to look for when buying a rare book, and how to create and promote unique institutional collections very useful.

We had several homework assignments. They included creating a rare book dealer catalog description for a book and pricing it, as well as creating a collection plan in an area of interest or for collection area participants wished to promote to users. It was fun hearing about the collections the other participants were planning on creating.

I came away from the course with some great ideas for how to build unique collections and display or promote them. Exhibiting books in order of size. Exhibiting books by color. Acquiring association copies. Looking for books owned by a locally-famous person. Collecting books of geographic interest, on institutional law specialties, of unique value. Taking a fresh look at your collection by asking questions like – What is the tiniest book in my collection? What is the biggest book? What is the weirdest book or object in your collection? What is the oldest book? What is the first book your library ever acquired? What books have colorful illustrations or bindings? I cannot wait to start implementing some of these ideas at our institution.