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From the Serial Set: 188 Years of the Law Library

The following is a guest post by Bailey DeSimone, a library technician (metadata) in the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress.

S. 68, 22nd Cong., 1st Sess. (1832). Establishment of the Law Department of the Library of Congress. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

As pre-digitization of the United States Congressional Serial Set is underway, the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library is discovering fascinating facts about American legislative history. The Serial Set is an important resource to understanding the passing of bills and resolutions. In recognition of the 188th anniversary of the Law Library of Congress, today we are sharing the history of its establishment. Although legal resources were classified by Thomas Jefferson in his 1814 contribution to the Library of Congress, it wasn’t until 1832 that a separate law division within the Library was proposed. This collection of United States legal research materials would then become the groundwork for the world’s largest collection of global legal materials.

In Custodia Legis has previously shared insight into the circumstances surrounding the specific need for a library department for legal materials, and has shown S. 68 – the bill establishing the Law Library – framed on the wall of the Law Library office. The steps between the idea and the law are documented in the Serial Set. The original motion for the bill, and its progression through both the Senate and the House of Representatives, is recorded in the Senate Journal for that Congress (22nd Congress, 1st session). House and Senate journals for most Congresses are present in the Serial Set, and outline the life cycles of bills brought before Congress.

Volume 211 of the Serial Set contains the motion preceding S. 68. Senator William Learned Marcy of New York proposed the following on January 20, 1832, in the first session of the 22nd Congress:

Senate Journal. 22nd Cong., 1st Sess., 20 January, 1832, 90. Introduction of S. 68. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

Mr. Marcy, from the Committee on the Judiciary, to whom the subject was referred by a resolution of the Senate of the 14th ultimo, reported a bill to increase and improve the law department of the Library of Congress; which was read; and[: ]Ordered, that it pass to a second reading.”

The second reading, which took place on March 15, 1832, amended the bill to fund the law department with $5,000 for the first year, with an additional $1,000 allocated for the next five years. The following day, the bill was sent to the House of Representatives.

The bill (S. 68) describes the goal of relocating all legal materials to a separate area, and establishing the Law Library as its own department within the Library of Congress. The proposed Law Department was also intended to support the patronage of the “Justices of the Supreme Court,” allowing them “free access” to the resources, as well as influence over the department’s administration. In 1832, the Law Department of the Library of Congress was envisioned to be all-encompassing, serving the needs of all three branches of government. Bill S. 68 was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on July 14, 1832.

The Serial Set gives insight into other important acts of Congress, including appropriations, which chronicle the development of federal institutions like the Law Library. For example, the Statement of Appropriations shows the total $10,000 in funding “for the Law Department of the Library of Congress” documented in the bill. Reports containing appropriations are among the many recurring documents that contribute to the breadth of the Serial Set.

H. Doc. No. 305, 22nd Cong., 1st Sess. (1832). Appropriations made during the first session of the 22nd Congress. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

Beginning in 1866, annual reports of the Librarian of Congress became fixtures of the Serial Set. The first report depicts a variety of statistics, including the Library’s yearly acquisitions. The Librarian of Congress at the time, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, details the funding amounts for legal materials (“law books”) and the “purchase of the law library of James L. Petigru,” formerly the Attorney General of South Carolina. As of December 1, 1870, the Law Department consisted of 27,170 volumes.

S. Misc. Doc. No. 31, 41st Cong., 3rd Sess. (1871). First annual Librarian of Congress report. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

Now, 188 years after the bill’s introduction, the Law Library of Congress continues to serve the legal community. The Law Library of Congress supports all patrons by making legislative history discoverable. The Digital Resources Division looks forward to sharing more of the history we uncover as the digitization of the Serial Set progresses.

4 Comments

  1. Elina Lee
    January 17, 2020 at 9:25 am

    What a neat post!! Thank you!

  2. Suzanne
    January 17, 2020 at 10:46 am

    Adore Constitutional,Contract, Corporate Law. Quite intriguing !

  3. Cathy C. Holtz
    January 17, 2020 at 11:57 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love the Library of Congress!

  4. Rick McKinney
    January 17, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    The digitized Serial Set will indeed be a great contribution and I know how huge it is.

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