Monday, September 26, 2016

Rare Book Room Traveling Show


Professor Bilder lecturing on various types of books
I was happy to have the opportunity to visit Professor Mary Bilder's American Legal History class this past Friday. Professor Bilder introduced her students to the various categories of legal literature (case reports, statutory compilations, justice of the peace manuals, legal treatises, law dictionaries, etc.) by showing examples from our Rare Book Room. After this introduction, each student received a book and had the chance to actually examine that book in detail. Using a worksheet with some prompts to guide their inquiry, students were asked to think critically about what the object itself can tell us about the book, its previous owners, and how it was used.

It's a great class every year, and this year was no different, with a great group of engaged and curious students. Many thanks to Professor Bilder for inviting us to class and for integrating rare books into her course!


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

New exhibit on the history of legal forms and formbooks

Exhibit catalog cover
I am happy to announce the opening of a new exhibit in the Daniel R. Coquillette Rare Book Room for the fall semester. The exhibit is called "Don't Reinvent the Wheel: The History of Forms in Anglo-American Literature". Whether in print sources, online databases, or law office knowledge management systems, good forms are a hugely important resource for litigators and transactional attorneys. Otherwise, every drafting project--complaints, motions, contracts, company documents--would involve starting from scratch!

This has been true for centuries--books with sample forms were among the first legal books to be transmitted via manuscript and later by printing. This exhibit takes a look at this long tradition from the earliest legal treatises to lawyers' personal manuscript books of precedents to pre-printed legal forms (known as "law blanks").

Please take a look at the exhibit webpage if you'd like a sneak peek. The room is open weekdays from 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., so please stop by to see the exhibit and say hello!

Friday, July 15, 2016

A look at the "crime of poverty" through a new acquisition

Title page and spine of Cutler's Insolvent Laws of Massachusetts
Our previous post shed light on the legal dilemma of debtors in the early United States. The book on hand today tracks the development of bankruptcy law in Massachusetts up to the eve of the Civil War.

This is the third edition of Joseph Cutler's The Insolvent Laws of Massachusetts (Boston, 1860), which includes relevant laws passed by the Massachusetts legislature through 1859. The fifth and final edition would be published in 1892. Few copies of any edition survive to the present day, and only ten third editions are known to exist. This particular copy, with its marbled covers and gilt fillets to the spine, belonged to W. S. Dexter, who wrote his name in pencil on the front flyleaf.

While the Greeks and Romans considered debtors’ prisons barbaric, the practice flourished in Europe and the English-speaking colonies of North America, beginning in the 1600s. For owing as little as 60 cents, even the rich and powerful, including two signers of the Declaration of Independence , might spend time in crowded communal cells. For the very poor, however, they might spend the rest of their lives imprisoned, unable to pay the debt and eventually felled by disease in the ghastly conditions of the gaol (The Marshall Project 2015).

By the time this book was published, the only writ that could be issued in relation to a debt was one allowing a sheriff to seize all of the debtor’s non-legally-excluded property for payment of the debt, as well as his account books (General Statutes, Ch. 118, Sec. 18, 1859). Federal law had banned debtors’ prisons in 1833, and in 1983 the Supreme Court would affirm their unconstitutionality. Despite this, since the Financial Crisis of 2008, the public has grown more and more aware of the practice of jailing poor people for being unable to pay debts. This occurs when private debtors fail to appear at civil proceedings and are jailed for contempt of court; jail can also be the result of debts incurred through involvement with the criminal justice system due to fines, a variety of evidence testing fees, or pretrial jail per-diems (The Marshall Project 2015).  While banned in law, it would appear debtors’ prisons live on in fact for unfortunate people whose only crime is being poor.

Thanks to the Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., for the background information on this item.

Sources:

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Pay up or off to prison!

Promissory note and writ
This pair of documents recounts a trying period in the life of one Robert Taylor. The first, smaller piece of paper is a promissory note, signed on 18 February 1780, in Milton, Massachusetts. Taylor promises to deliver Isaac Davenport 300 “weight” of good merchantable flax by April 1 of the same year in exchange for £20.

The next document makes it clear that he did not deliver Davenport the flax. A forerunner of today’s fill-in- the-blanks legal forms, this is a writ, addressed to the sheriff of Worcester County, for the arrest of Taylor.

If the law caught up with Taylor, he would have been placed in debtors’ prison. Next week’s blog and selection from the Rare Book Room will examine the conditions Taylor would have faced in the prison, as well as a look at the history of debtors’ prisons in Massachusetts and the United States at large.

This post was written by BC Law Library intern, Allison Shely, Boston College Class of 2017. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"First" American edition of Vattel's seminal work on international law


Emer de Vattel's The Law of Nations, his seminal work on international law, was first published in 1758 in his native French. In 2014, we acquired this first edition in an original trade binding. Recently, we were happy to add a copy of a very early American edition to our collection. Indicated as the first edition on the title page, this is in fact the second American edition (the first was actually published in New York in 1787).

Vattel’s influential work was cited more frequently than any other work in the courts of the Early Republic and received high praise from the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. It continues to be cited today by courts across our country and beyond.

This unassuming but lovely copy clearly was well-used; there are pencil markings throughout the volume. The binding is sheepskin patterned to mimic tree calf, with gilt tooling and the original lettering piece on the spine.

Many thanks to Michael von der Linn at Lawbook Exchange for the description on which this posted is based.

For more on the Vattel’s influence in colonial and early America, see Willem Theo Oosterveld, The Law of Nations in Early American Foreign Policy (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2016), 26-35.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Look Back at a Recent Student Event: Legally Binding


Last month, I hosted our second annual student lunch and "behind the scenes" Rare Book Room event. This year, we were lucky to have Barbara Hebard, Burns Conservator, as a special guest. We enjoyed a great lunch, and then went into the Rare Book Room with our six student attendees, a fantastic mix of enthusiastic first, second, and third year law students.

For each book, I gave a brief overview of the content and its importance in our collection, and then Barbara talked about the binding and other physical characteristics. I never fail to learn something when Barbara comes over. In addition to explaining what one can tell about a book and its audience by certain binding features, she pointed out evidence of long-removed clasps on our 1559 Corpus Iuris Civilis; revealed how our 1496 edition of the Decretales of Gregory IX had been bound in vellum over an earlier paper binding; and explained how you can tell how certain owners had clearly planned (or not, depending on the book!) for the addition of copious annotations.

The students, as usual, were amazed at the condition of the paper in our 1475 Nuremberg printing of the Code of Justinian. They had excellent questions about the process of dual-color printing, the relationship between printers and bookbinders, and the importance of annotations and other marginalia for legal historians.

At the end of our session, Barbara showed us all how to sew a pamphlet, and we used our current exhibit catalogs to practice!




Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Student Event in the Rare Book Room: Lunch, Books, and Binding

RSVP quickly to snag one of ten slots on OrgSync!

In light of the success of last year’s student event in the Rare Book Room, on Monday 4/25 at noon, curator Laurel Davis is going to host another lunch, exhibit, and discussion about our beautiful collection of rare books and manuscripts.

This year, we will have a special guest: Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator at the Burns Library, the home of Boston College’s special collections. We will provide lunch from Panera in the law library conference room, and then move into the Rare Book Room to look at some highlights from our collection. After that, we’ll have a hands-on session with Barbara for those who would like to try their hand at binding a pamphlet!