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A Look Inside the Vault

Some of the real gems of the Law Library’s collection require special handling and cannot be shelved in the open stacks.  For these materials, we have the Rare Book Collection.  The Law Library’s collection of rare books consists of approximately 60,000 volumes of books and bound manuscripts.

The collection is a great place for researchers studying the history of the rule of law.  From our collection of incunabula to pre-Soviet Russian sources, the holdings reflect the diversity of the development of law.  The incunabula – printed books published before 1501 – in our custody consist of over three hundred volumes dealing with Roman, canon, and feudal law.  These works were published in cities throughout Europe and England in Latin and vernacular languages.  Our Russian Imperial Collection consists of legal volumes from the Winter Palace of Czar Nicholas II.

As might be expected of America’s Law Library, we have extensive holdings of early American law.  The English and American Trials Collection covers trials from all periods since the 1500s.  These collections contain much more than just transcripts of trials.  Some of the more interesting material includes confessions and collected accounts of crimes and trials.

We also have approximately one hundred appeal cases to the Privy Council in England.  These 18th century appeals originated in the colonies of Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, and St. Christopher.

Our collection of early American statutory law is the result of a concerted effort to acquire original editions of session laws, codes, and special laws from colonial, territorial, and state entities.  The collection has been enhanced with the addition of laws and constitutions of American Indian tribes, Confederate States of America session laws, and early session laws of the United States.

In addition to these official sources of law, we have a collection of unofficial legal materials.  These consist primarily of manuals for municipal officers, guides presenting the rights and duties of citizens, and abridgments of local laws for officials and laymen in the colonial period.  In addition to these three categories, the collection also contains early biographies and legal periodicals.

While the Library of Congress considers books published or created prior to 1801 as “rare,” age is not the only consideration for assigning an item to the Rare Book Collection.  This is also where we shelve items that require special attention or shelving considerations.  For example, we have a collection of miniature laws books measuring ten centimeters or less in height.

Throughout legal history, law books were published in miniature for various reasons.  In days of traveling judges or lawyers, small books fit nicely in saddlebags while a jurist rode his circuit.  Miniatures were also produced as commemoratives to celebrate the adoption of significant laws.  One example of this is our copy of the Russian 1861 Emancipation Manifesto.  This proclamation freed 23 million people from serfdom during the reign of Alexander II.  Constitutions are commonly produced as miniatures, either as commemoratives or as affordable copies for the people.  One of the smallest books in our collection is the Constitución de la República de Cuba, published in 1986.

I don’t know if it is just the Germanophile in me or the outdoor theme, but two of my favorite items in the collection relate to German game laws.  One is a reprint of 16th century German game laws.  The other is not a book at all, but an 18th century certificate presented to an assistant game warden in Hanau.  Both have terrific graphics; the latter is a great example of the variety of non-book materials we have in the collection.

Rare book service is available on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Access to rare materials is by appointment and we welcome your inquiries.  For further information, contact Dr. Meredith Shedd-Driskel, Law Curator, at mdri@loc.gov.

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