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Inquiring Minds: Hunting for Treasure in the Manuscript Division

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Students of Professor Ross Davies of George Mason University Law School hold up the Library of Congress reader identification cards they obtained to complete a research assignment Davies requires.

Ross Davies has been a regular in the Library’s Manuscript Division for about two decades now. He has worked with papers of Supreme Court justices, consulted collections on the federal courts and introduced his students to the Library—a “treasure hunt” he assigns requires them to find resources in the Manuscript Division and the Law Library. He has even donated original materials.

Davies teaches at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law—administrative law, contracts, employment discrimination and legal history are among his courses. He has written extensively about the U.S. court system but also about other subjects such as labor unions, the beginnings of golf at the Supreme Court, baseball and the fictional private detective Sherlock Holmes.

Besides his scholarship and teaching, Davies is known for his much-sought-after Supreme Court bobbleheads, which he designs and distributes through “The Green Bag: An Entertaining Journal of Law.” He cofounded the journal while in law school to publish brief, readable legal articles meant to provoke discussion.

Here, Davies answers a few questions about his experiences at the Library.

Ross Davies

What first brought you to the Library to do research?

When I was in law school, I spent part of one summer—it was 1996—working in the Washington, D.C., office of one of the great law firms, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. I spent some of my spare time in D.C. doing research for a paper on the development of what is known as the “good faith exception” to one of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rules—the Mapp v. Ohio rule, which permits criminal defendants in state prosecutions to challenge the admissibility of evidence obtained through “unreasonable searches and seizures.” I ended up spending a lot of time in the Manuscript Division Reading Room. I left at the end of the summer with half-a-dozen three-ring binders full of photocopies of useful documents from the papers of several justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. During the course of that summer, I also got an excellent education in archival research from the kind and patient and knowledgeable Library staff in the reading room.

 Which collections have you used?

I doubt I can remember them all. Here are some: the papers of Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Harold Burton, Benjamin Curtis, William Day, William Douglas, Gabriel Duvall, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg, John Harlan, Oliver Holmes, Robert Jackson, Horace Lurton, Thurgood Marshall, John McLean, Samuel Miller, William Moody, William Paterson, Wiley Rutledge, Joseph Story, George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter, Byron White and Levi Woodbury and about Chief Justices Salmon Chase, Oliver Ellsworth, Melville Fuller, Charles Hughes, Harlan Stone, William Taft, Morrison Waite and Earl Warren. I’ve spent time in other collections as well, including the papers of Edward Bernays, James G. Blaine, Benjamin Bristow, Benjamin Butler, J.C. Bancroft Davis, Frederick Douglass, William Evarts, Duff Green, James Kent, Anthony Lewis, Groucho Marx, Donald Richberg, Carl Swisher and William Wirt.

What do you value most about the collections you’ve used?

The opportunity to work directly with primary sources, unfiltered by the corrections and manipulations of intervening generations. And there is also something a little bit magical—almost a kind of time travel—about holding pieces of paper that were also held, even written on, by the historical figures whose works I’m studying and whose thoughts and actions I’m trying to understand.

Supreme Court bobbleheads designed by Davies on a shelf in the Manuscript Division. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Tell us a little about the “treasure hunt” you ask your students to conduct.

I teach a course called Institutions of American Law for first-year law students. One part of the course is a “treasure hunt,” in which they must visit several government institutions in the Washington, D.C., area and perform various tasks. One of those institutions is the Library of Congress, where they must perform three tasks:

  • Get a reader card. This is easy to do. The Library has an astonishingly efficient and user-friendly on-site system for issuing cards.
  • Find the Library department where the Papers of Harry A. Blackmun, a Supreme Court justice from 1970 to 1994, are kept. (They are in the Manuscript Division Reading Room.) Then, take a picture of an “opinion log sheet” from a case file in one of 24 boxes from the Blackmun Papers. Students tend to be nervous about this, until they meet someone on the Library staff—they’re all knowledgeable and helpful and nice—and get to use the handy finding aid for the Blackmun Papers.
  • Find the Library department that has a set of official reports of decisions and opinions of the Supreme Court. (It is the Law Library.) Then, take a picture of the first page of the official opinion of the Court in the case listed on the opinion log sheet the student photographed in the Manuscript Division Reading Room.

Why do you think it is important for your students to visit the Library to do research?

First, they are in Washington, D.C., home to the greatest collection of written and sketched and published human work in the world. They should know how to tap that resource. Actually going through the process at least once will help them do so with confidence again in the future.

Second, they should know just how easy it is to use the Library, and how friendly and knowledgeable the Library staff is. Here is what one of my students said to me (via email) after visiting the Manuscript Division Reading Room: “All in all, it was a great experience getting to know the ancient way to look up things (not just type in then enter, then get whatever you need), the scale and value of the scripts kept here, and most importantly, the attitude and hospitality of the staff.” I hear similar things from many of my students who visit the Library.

Third, at a more general level, my students (like all of us) probably benefit from an occasional reminder that while Googling is one good way to do research, it is not the only way, and there are useful and interesting resources that are best accessed—and, in some situations, can only be accessed—by going to a library. My students’ experiences at the Library are excellent evidence of that reality.

How did you come to be a collection donor, and what did you donate?

I came to be a collection donor for three reasons. First, I believe that documents produced by officials of our national government should be preserved for the benefit of the people of this nation, and that as many of “we the people” as reasonably possible should have access to as many of those documents as reasonably possible, as easily and affordably as reasonably possible. For officials of our national government, there are few acts that make for a more democratic and public-minded legacy than donating their papers to the Library; conversely, there are few acts that make for a more antidemocratic and elitist legacy than donating their papers to private institutions. Second, I know from long and direct experience that the Library does the best job of achieving those goals. Third, a former official of our national government, Bennett Boskey, gave me some documents produced while he and his colleagues were federal officials—specifically, members and staff of the Supreme Court—with the understanding that I was free to do donate them to the institution of my choice. And so, of course, I chose the Library of Congress.

What has your experience been like generally working with Library staff as a researcher and donor?

Great, simply great. They are knowledgeable, resourceful, nice and very, very patient!


  1. I wonder if Ross Davies has explored the Supreme Court page proofs at the National Archives in DC? Some years ago, I was a volunteer helping sort through page proofs which had been reordered in such a way as to make retrieval difficult. I noticed in particular that one justice was a great scribbler. His page proofs had many changes for the printer, and possibly would reveal his last-minute thoughts. Justice Harlan, I think it was, scribbled a lot, and I tried to find the page proof of his famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. But to no avail. (I am not a lawyer, and may have the details wrong.)

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