This is a guest post by Anne Guha who was an intern with the Law Library’s Public Services Division this spring and is now working in Public Services for the summer.
As I’m collecting degrees (and acronyms) throughout my 20s and 30s, moving from my joint-degree J.D./M.A. (Juris Doctor / Masters of Arts) at the George Washington University (GWU) to a M.S.L.I.S. (Master’s of Science in Library and Information Science) at the Catholic University of America (CUA), I’ve also had the pleasure of exploring and learning about the many fantastic law libraries that Washington, D.C. has to offer. Recently, while conducting research in the course of my studies, I learned of a project currently underway at the Georgetown Law Library to digitize their collection of early legal dictionaries. This will facilitate the entry of these rare editions into the public domain and make them virtually accessible.
The project is on-going, but the collection titled Digital Dictionaries: 1481-1891, already offers digitized copies of almost 40 early dictionaries. The Georgetown Law Library provides information about its collection and offers suggestions for related reading on the collection’s landing page, and the dictionaries can be browsed or searched by clicking the link provided in the second paragraph on that page. The library writes: “Although by no means yet complete, this resource is already supporting a wide range of research and scholarship involving the meaning of a word or phrase contemporaneous with a specific text, as well as the development of the meanings of words and phrases over time.”
Georgetown Law Library currently plans to scan a total of 87 titles, comprising over 120 volumes. Chronologically, the completed collection will begin with Georgetown Law Library’s 1481 Jodocus Vocabularius–held to be the first printed legal dictionary–and will run through 1891, the year of the first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. The collection will primarily include English language dictionaries, along with a few non-English European titles. Each dictionary will be divided into a set of color PDFs, which can be downloaded or accessed online in an embedded document viewer. The digitized images generally include the front and back boards, spines, front matter, and end matter. This way online patrons can see all the hand-written markings, stamps, and any other interesting distinguishing features that these volumes have acquired over the years (or centuries) before entering Georgetown’s collection. In addition to their scholarly and academic value, these beautiful scans are fascinating to flip through due to the method used to replicate virtually the experience of interacting with the physical print volumes.
Here at the Law Library of Congress reference desk, we often receive questions from patrons about accessing copies of early legal dictionaries. Although there are a few commercial databases that offer digitized version of a few early titles, this freely-available collection provided by Georgetown’s law library should prove to be a valuable contribution to legal scholars, academics, and practitioners.