Nathan Dorn is the curator of the rare books collection in the Law Library.
Describe your work at the Library.
I am the curator of the rare books collection at the Law Library of Congress, which is mostly a collection of historical printed law books from Europe, the British Isles and the Americas. That role includes a handful of different tasks. I’m the recommending officer for the collection, which means I spend a lot of my time analyzing the collection and shopping for books to acquire that would grow it in useful directions. I’m the reference librarian for questions that relate to objects in the collection or to the subject matter it covers. In addition, I do a lot of outreach work. That includes frequent table-top displays and also longer-lived presentations. I’ve curated two Library of Congress exhibitions. I also write for the Law Library’s blog.
How did you prepare for your position?
Like most of the librarians at the Law Library, I have a Juris Doctor and a master’s in library science. When I was finishing my master’s, I had the good luck to work as an assistant to the previous rare book curator here at the Law Library. I was studying history of the book and descriptive bibliography, so I was really grateful for the opportunity to engage with the collection in hands-on ways.
Before I worked in libraries, I studied classics and then religious studies at the University of Chicago and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago when the subject of religion and law pried my attention away from the history of mysticism, which had been occupying me for several years. When I started to look at the history of law, I came to the subject with a raft of foreign language skills that definitely helped prepare me for my work today.
What are your favorite collection items?
This definitely changes all the time. New acquisitions always get my attention. The Law Library recently acquired a copy of the Hamburg Quran, an early edition of the Quran printed in Europe in 1694, and I’m excited to grow the Law Library’s Islamic law collection.
But I also like oddities of law — publications in which law and the administration of the state bump up against the edges of what can be known or realistically controlled: for instance, works on prosecution for witchcraft or heresy; adjudication of miracles; early laws related to mental illness; and medieval and early modern criminal procedure and rules of evidence. Some of my favorite items have been examples of renaissance mnemotechnics, or the art of memory training for lawyers. For example, the works of Johannes Buno are jaw-dropping just from the point of view of their ingenuity.
What have been your most memorable experiences at the Library?
My interactions with visitors are some of the most memorable. Here’s just one unexpected experience: I’m a huge fan of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” so it was especially fun that I had a chance to take the actor Richard Dreyfuss and his wife on a tour of the Jefferson Building along with a colleague of mine. Dreyfuss and I found our way into a long conversation about historian Nancy Isenberg’s book “Fallen Founder,” which tries to rehabilitate the reputation of Aaron Burr. He was a big fan of the version of Burr that came out of that book, and he told me about it in detail.
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