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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Rare Book School: "Law Books: History & Connoisseurship"

Recently I had the great opportunity to assist Mike Widener with his terrific Rare Book School course, "Law Books: History & Connoisseurship," taught in New Haven, Connecticut, from June 11-15. Rooted in Mike's incredible knowledge of rare law books and drawing from the Rare Book Collection at Yale Law Library, the course familiarizes participants with the wide variety of historical legal books that have been produced in Europe and the Americas, and offers excellent insight into how and why these important books should be collected. 

As Mike's course description says directly: "[t]his course aims to teach collectors and librarians how to build focused, interesting, and useful collections of historical materials in Anglo-American, European, and Latin American law. It is aimed at individuals and librarians who collect historical legal materials, and the book dealers who supply them." 

On all of these points, the course offers rich material. During our week together with the class, Mike and I reviewed a spectrum of historical legal materials that may be collected. Mike then invited participants to examine and describe a historical law book in detail, as they might find it described for sale in a rare bookseller's catalog. The aim was to encourage a closer engagement not only with various physical parts of historical books, but with the condition in which books are often found on the market, along with price ranges and special or unique features that may heighten an item's historical interest and its connection to other works within an existing collection. Participants were later asked to draw up a collection development plan for their own collection. Here Mike elaborated on an important virtue: interesting and focused collections (of which there are many kinds) should be preferred over simply valuable ones. Bearing that directive in mind, the participants came up with excellent ideas for their real (and prospective) collections, which were discussed and critiqued together.

Beyond the class's formal structure, Mike imparted much valuable advice on how to use rare law collections and take care of them, with an eye to the kinds of student and faculty interactions with rare materials that can enhance any learning experience, deepen an appreciation for physical and artifactual book history, and expand the scope of historical studies. In addition, the course was packed with opportunities to engage directly with rare law books and with the experience of collecting. These included two live and extended book tours of selected books, pamphlets, broadsides and other rare legal material, and two trips to local rare book dealers' shops (both of which have extensive law-related stock). A bonus in the middle of the week was watching and commenting on a live rare book auction, a real thrill even for us causal observers.

Before assisting with the course this year, I had participated in Mike's course as a class member, and the participants this year seemed to enjoy it as much as I did several years ago (Professor Mitra Sharafi at Wisconsin has posted a very nice review of the course already on the Legal History Blog, with discussion of some of the ways the course can impact teaching). The course is a wonderful testament to Mike's knowledge about and passion for rare law books, and I was grateful to be a part of it. In adding my own perspective as a rare law book and special collections curator at Minnesota, I was able to offer insight not only into our own collection, but some of the various approaches we have taken to collecting, maintaining and presenting our books.  

In all - though I am certainly biased - the week-long course represents a unique and wonderful experience for anyone interested in working further with rare law books, and certainly earns its billing as an intense and immersive experience. More importantly, it fills its participants (and the instructors!) with inspiring ideas that are built for practical application in law-related special collections. 

For all those who may be interested in this field - or whose curiosity might have been piqued in reading this - Mike's course will be offered again in two years through Virginia's Rare Book School. As usual, it is taught in the summer and requires prior application. Please keep your eyes out for it, and keep in mind that there are scholarship and fellowship opportunities available, with earlier deadlines, that can help participants with costs.

 - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

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