Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Symposium Introduction- the Law Librarian's Role in the Scholarly Enterprise: Historical Development of the Librarian/Research Partnership in American Law Schools

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Symposium Introduction- the Law Librarian's Role in the Scholarly Enterprise: Historical Development of the Librarian/Research Partnership in American Law Schools

Article excerpt


A substantial law library well supported by qualified library staff is now accepted as an essential element by every U.S. law school. In fact, the existence of just such a law library is mandated for all law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) or holding membership in the American Association of Law Schools (AALS).1 Law school libraries represent one of the key elements subject to continuing sabbatical inspection by both the ABA and the AALS in order to insure they provide adequate support for the educational and research mission of the law school.

Since a strong law library is now a required element in every accredited U.S. law school, it would likely surprise most law students and many professors to learn that the role of law libraries as the comprehensive informational and research operations that we take for granted today is a relatively new phenomenon.2

Of course, every law professor and law student3 does know that the American legal system is based on common law jurisprudence requiring that legal rulings must be grounded whenever possible on following prior legal precedents.4 Therefore, it has always been essential for legal practitioners and judges to have continuing access to published court opinions, statutes, and other legal authorities. Due to the variety of jurisdictions which are part of our legal system5 and the sheer volume of an ever expanding number of precedents issued by courts and lawmakers, it quickly became nearly impossible for any individual to accumulate a comprehensive personal law library. To meet the needs for access to published legal authorities, groups of attorneys, courts, and bar associations banded together to gather as many opinions, statutes, commentaries on the law, and related material as possible. These comprehensive locally held collections were indispensible to the practice of law in a given geographic area.

However the high cost of law books and their relative scarcity in early America meant law libraries would be few in number for quite some time.6 Most of the law libraries that did exist were privately owned by individual lawyers or in the case of a number of forward thinking bar associations: subscription law libraries formed and paid for by the members and not generally open to anyone but the paying members.7

The practice of educating individuals to be lawyers was also radically different than it is today. Until the 20th century it was customary for most people who wished to become lawyers in the U.S. to gain their training by apprenticing with an experienced lawyer rather than by engaging in formal legal instruction at a law school. This system of apprenticeship became known as "reading for the bar."8

Formal programs of legal education did not exist in America until after the Revolution. In 1779, George Wythe became the first person in the newly independent United States to be designated as a law professor when he was appointed to this position at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.9 During the late 18th and early 19th century a number of law schools did come into existence with some of the oldest being: Litchfield (CT) in 1784, William and Mary in 1779, University of Pennsylvania in 1790, Columbia University in 1794, and Harvard University in 1806.10

The small number of law schools in existence in America prior to the Civil War11 catered to the so-called elite of society.12 Most law schools were located in cities, making them physically remote from the homes of the vast majority of the largely agrarian-based population of the United States. The sheer distance most people would have to travel to attend law school together with the cost of attendance was far greater than the average individual could hope to bear. Added to these impediments were additional barriers which would further prevent many of the willing from attending law school: for example, the admission practices of most of the early law schools were not only class based, but often discriminated based on a candidate's religious persuasion. …

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