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Sunday, August 15, 2021

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

Rare Book School in Virginia is an excellent place to learn about the history of the book in an immersive environment. It offers week-long courses on a wide variety of topics in book history and bibliography, digital humanities, and more. One of these courses, "Law Books: History and Connoisseurship," is taught by Mike Widener, recently retired as rare books librarian at Yale Law Library. At the beginning of August, we co-taught the course material, similar to the class we taught in 2018. This year the course was taught on Zoom due to the pandemic. Although the course is usually hands-on, allowing students to interact with physical copies of books and bibliographies, document cameras have now made the online experience a pretty reasonable facsimile of the "real" thing.

The course covered the history of printed law books, with a focus on America and Europe, and types of legal publications from around 1500 to 1900. At center was always the idea of book as artifact: an object that bears with it the history of its use and ownership, which forms an integral part of the object's identity, value, and interest to a collector. Featured during the week were books with peculiar (and elegant) bindings, associations with notable owners, illustrations, annotations, and other features that enhance the items' interest. Beyond books, broadsides, letters, pamphlets, notebooks and manuscript material were discussed, along with methods to preserve and present these artifacts.

It was a very enjoyable week together with the class. We discussed and shared experiences and questions that affected all of us. At the course's conclusion, participants presented a special law collection they were developing or would develop, based partly on input from the course and classmates. As Mike often reminds, it's not the monetary value of a collection that makes it worthwhile, but rather its coherence, interest, novelty and the passion that the collector brings to it.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

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