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The World’s Legal Heritage in Great Subterranean Halls, or… A Collection Big with Babylonian Perspective

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The Old Law Library in the Capitol. The room depicted is the old Senate Chamber. It housed the Supreme Court from 1859 to 1860 and the Law Library of Congress from 1860 to 1950. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)

A walk through the stacks of the Law Library of Congress will give you a vivid sense, if you had ever wondered, of what more than a million books looks like.  Current statistics show that the Law Library houses 2.78 million physical volumes in its collection.  Nearly all of these are stored in four gigantesque halls of compact shelving located in the sub-basement of the Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress.  About two of these halls (give or take) are given over to our collection of foreign laws and legal literature.  Some estimates suggest that nearly 60 percent of all titles in the possession of the Law Library are in languages other than English.  This is not the result of chance.  The collection of foreign laws that we have amassed is one of the great projects undertaken by the Law Library of Congress for over a century; it is a project that has become a primary factor in our institutional identity — one that will remain a major concern for us for a long time ahead.

What are we up to?  The Law Library of Congress now collects legal literature from every jurisdiction on earth, current and historical (over 240 at last count).  We try to cover official gazettes, constitutional literature, chronological publications of laws and session laws, hearings, court reports, decisions of administrative courts, finding aids, commentary, legal periodicals and reference titles from every corner of the globe.

You might find yourself asking: why does a national law library for the United States of America strive to become a universal collection of legal literature from all times, nations and jurisdictions?

Another image of the old Law Library in the Capitol. The Law Library maintained a presence in the Capitol Building until the late 1980s. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)

The simple answer to this question can be had by returning to Thomas Jefferson’s response to the question of why his personal book collection, which spanned all topics and genres, was a reasonable foundation for the Congressional Library’s new beginning.  He said, “There is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”  The Law Library of Congress bears this observation out in direct experience.  Last week, Jeanine wrote about the services that the Law Library’s Global Legal Research Directorate offers to Congress.  It is no exaggeration to say that the greatest asset our researchers have in serving the Congress is the physical collection of law books and legal literature that is gathered and maintained by the Law Library.

So much for the simple answer. The complicated answer is the story of the two hundred years of collection development and policy change that have produced this remarkable law library.  What follows are some of the highlights of that story.

  • In 1815, the collection which the Library of Congress acquired from Thomas Jefferson contained 476 law titles in 639 volumes.  Jefferson considered more than a third of these to be foreign law books, but then, in the classification scheme that he invented for his collection, American states outside the Commonwealth of Virginia were held to be foreign jurisdictions.  Also included in that class were Scottish and Irish books as well as titles from France and other civil law jurisdictions.  Jefferson collected a number of titles on the law of nations, Roman law and the laws of the Church of England.
Massive new shelving for the Law Library of Congress depicted here sometime after 1897, in the Northeast Corner of the Thomas Jefferson Building. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)
  • From the late 1820s to the end of the 1840s, the Law Library made special efforts to acquire legislative materials and court reports from the various states of the Union (the collection’s bias toward Virginia seems to have lasted some time).  By 1849, the collection had grown to nearly 8,000 volumes, with only a small portion of these devoted to foreign jurisdictions.  The 1849 catalog, for example, lists only about 240 titles devoted to the civil law and European jurisdictions.  These were added for the most part to support collections of material from Florida and Louisiana where the influence of Spanish and Civil Law remained relevant.
  • The first step toward the Law Library’s project to develop a global legal collection came about as a result of the Mexican American War (1846-1848).  After reckoning with the prospect that the United States may be in a position to govern territory that had previously been under Mexican rule, Congress recognized the need to have at its disposal up-to-date sources of information on the laws and legal system of our neighbor to the south.  In 1848, Congress directed the Library to purchase all sources on Mexican law that it could find; and again in 1854, when that possibility became a reality, Congress allocated $1,700 for the Library’s acquisition of additional Mexican and Spanish legal materials.
Administrative Offices of the Law Division of the Library of Congress, ca. 1935. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)
  •  The purchase of foreign law books, especially books from Western Europe, increased through the end of the nineteenth century at a slightly better pace than the acquisition of American law books.  As a result of copyright deposits, the Law Library’s overall collection grew to 103,000 volumes by 1898, the year after the Thomas Jefferson Building was completed.  Of those volumes, about 10,000 were in foreign languages.
  • War in Cuba in 1898 and in the Philippines in 1899 led the Librarian of Congress to direct the Law Library to acquire the legal literature of those two jurisdictions.  A new outward-looking mood in American foreign relations was mirrored in a new direction for legal research at the Law Library of Congress.  In 1910, a library employee, and later Law Librarian of Congress, Edwin Montefiore Borchard (1884-1951) made the first research expedition for the Law Library, traveling to the major cities of Europe to consult with foreign law scholars about how best to build our collections for their jurisdictions.  The result of Borchard’s journey was a series of wish lists that became the basis of bibliographic guides that the Law Library would later publish on the legal systems of the various European nations.  Borchard and other library staff members continued to research and publish such guides for the next forty years, for the countries of Europe, Latin America, Asia and, later, Africa.  The wish lists generated by this research contributed much to the Library’s later collection of foreign legal literature.
Edwin Montefiore Borchard, Law Librarian of Congress 1911-1916. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)
  •  The great watershed in the Law Library’s collection of foreign law books was World War II.  The war changed the face of the globe; it both added many new jurisdictions and elevated the place and influence of the United States in world affairs.  In light of these developments, the Law Library began to aggressively build a collection that could support in-depth research on every existing jurisdiction and body of law, as it was evident that the United States must now aspire to have a relationship with every country in the world.  By 1950, at least 150,000 of the Law Library’s 750,000 volumes were in foreign languages.  It was during this period that the Law Library established its modern practice of employing foreign-trained area specialists on the laws of foreign jurisdictions to improve the quality of the collection and to provide Congress with high-quality research on demand.  In 1956, the Law Library was reorganized to include an Anglo-American Division, European Law Division, Far Eastern Law Division, and Hispanic Law Division.  A wing of the Law Library’s reference room was then devoted to foreign legal reference services. (This is the predecessor of today’s Global Legal Research Directorate.)
  • While the foreign legal experts assisted in selecting new law titles to acquire, the Law Library’s collection building was greatly enhanced when the Library of Congress established field offices in far flung corners of the globe.  This began in 1962 with offices opening in New Delhi, India.  Other offices would follow in Cairo, Egypt (1963); Jakarta, Indonesia (1963); Karachi, Pakistan (1965) – the Pakistan Field Office moved to Islamabad in 1995; Nairobi, Kenya (1966); and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1966).  These offices gave the Library of Congress direct access to areas of the world that were previously much more difficult to collect for.

The Law Library continues to expand its collection today in order to keep pace with developments in the law in the United States and throughout the world.  Our aim remains to serve the Congress and the nation with accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive legal information on all jurisdictions throughout the world.


Comments (2)

  1. The unacknowledged quotation in the title above comes from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. It is part of a passage describing a universe of a certain type: “One went into larger and larger windowless rooms, rooms big with Babylonian perspective…”

  2. Great post, Nathan! It reminds me of multiple reasons why I love working here.

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