Two Centuries of Treasures in the Harvard Law School Library: An Exhibit

Over the past 200 years, Harvard Law School has built a collection of primary and secondary law unsurpassed by any other academic law library in the world. In 1868, the library, then on the first floor of Dane Hall, was managed by a single librarian and contained 15,000 volumes. Today, the library, a centerpiece of the law school campus, houses more than 2 million items.

historic manuscript with colorful ink

Credit: HLS Historical & Special Collections

For much of its history, the library’s mission has included actively collecting, preserving and making freely available materials that are in danger of being lost to time or cultural conflict. The library has served as a repository for the papers, photographs and community ephemera that document the school’s history and traditions.

Christopher Columbus Langdell, the first dean of Harvard Law School, said: “The work done in the library is what the scientific men call original investigation. The library is to us what a laboratory is to the chemist or the physicist, and what the museum is to the naturalist.”

“Library as Lab” was a powerful metaphor in Dean Langdell’s day, and it remains so today. In an exhibit at Langdell Hall’s Caspersen Room that runs through June, the library highlights a selection of material that emphasizes the connection between the library’s impressive collection and its community of users.

The material in the Bicentennial exhibit is arranged around six themes: Keepers of Memory, Preserving Legal Heritage, Promoting Justice, Global Citizens, Supreme Court Clerks and Their Justices, and Library as Lab.