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Hidden Treasures of the Law Library of Congress

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The Law Library of Congress is known for being the world’s largest law library, with a collection of over 2.9 million volumes spanning the ages and covering virtually every jurisdiction in the world. Its collection encompasses the largest and most comprehensive legal collection in the world. Our reading room contains legal treatises by subject, annotated codes, and a wide selection of federal and state legal material. It is also a Supreme Court Depository Library, providing patrons with vital access to Supreme Court records and briefs. Within those millions of volumes, there are bound to be some materials in our collection that may surprise you. We asked our staff to highlight their favorite hidden treasures in the Law Library’s collections.

Nathan Dorn, Rare Book Curator:

Medieval Fragments Collection [Photo by Nathan Dorn]
My current favorite hidden collection is the Law Library’s collection of medieval manuscript waste bindings and manuscript fragments. Manuscript waste is scraps of discarded handwritten medieval books. During the first couple of centuries of printing, bookbinders often used scraps of medieval manuscripts to bind books. The Law Library is currently engaged in a project to locate and describe all the fragmentary medieval documents in its collections. The collection includes approximately 600 medieval manuscript fragments, nearly all of which are incorporated into the bindings of later manuscript and printed books. The item that is depicted above is a fragment of the Breviarium Romanum, which is a liturgical text of the Catholic Church. It probably dates to between 1210 and 1230 and is from either Northern France or Belgium.

Jenny Gesley, Foreign Law Specialist:

One of my favorite rare books is the “General Ordinance for Bavaria from 1516.” Books, in particular law books, back then were just much nicer; they had the nice lettering, a lot of times a very elaborately decorated first letter of the sentence, and interesting pictures. The beer purity law (Reinheitsgebot), which is contained in this book, is one of the oldest food regulations in the world that is still in effect and it has played a crucial role in establishing German beer’s worldwide reputation for taste and quality. I am always amazed at the treasures that we have in our collection.

Anna Price, Legal Reference Specialist:

I am a fan of Harry Truman’s law school notebook. As the video in the linked blog post mentions, the Law Library has a relatively small collection of hand written materials, which makes this item stand out among our collection. As someone who attended law school not too long ago, I remember how important notes are; there’s even a plot arc in The Paper Chase about law students who jealously guard their notes from one another. I generally enjoy working with parts of our collection that make me feel connected to the work of lawyers or law students. This attachment is probably a reason why I enjoy research projects involving U.S. Court of Appeals dockets and Supreme Court Records and Briefs.

Robert Brammer, Chief of the Office of External Relations:

I’m interested in history, so my favorite hidden treasures in the Law Library’s collection are housed in our rare book collection. It’s hard to pick just one, but my favorite is George Washington’s First Acts of Congress. Washington’s signature appears on the front page, and Nathan and I made a video about it that you can watch here!

Stephen Mayeaux, Legal Information Specialist:

One of my favorites is the Comparative Study on Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Laws in Major Foreign Countries (1975). This comparative legal report on electronic surveillance laws, written by foreign law specialists in the Law Library in 1975, was selected not because I believe that the report itself is a uniquely hidden treasure, but because I see it as representative of the many more “hidden treasures” contained in the Publications of the Law Library of Congress collection overall. This collection, which features a wide range of historical legal reports that were, until recently, unavailable to the public, is a genuine treasure trove of original comparative analysis of foreign and international law from the period of the 1950s to the present, all of which was authored by Law Library staff over several decades. Better still, the collection is still growing, with hundreds of digitized and born-digital historical reports being released every few months!

Elin Hofverberg, Foreign Legal Specialist: 

A lot of gems from the Scandinavian/Nordic part of our collection have been covered in previous blog posts. One of my favorites is the Jonsbok.

Another favorite collection item is the Kyrklag from 1686, which establishes that Swedes had to learn to read, resulting in almost universal literacy by the mid 1700s. Check out the previous blog post I wrote highlighting this item here!

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