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History of the Harvard Law School Library

In July 1817, the creation of the Law School was announced with the promise that students would “have access to a complete law library.” The library was housed in the office of the University Professor of Law, and had a budget of $681.74.

In 1820, the Library had 584 titles. Three years later the Joseph Story collection of over 1,000 books was added. In 1832, the Library was moved to Dane Hall. By 1841 there were 6,100 volumes in the collection, enough to allow “the student to verify every citation which is made in Blackstone’s Commentaries.”

Dean Langdell

In 1870, Christopher Columbus Langdell was appointed first Dean of the Law School. Dean Langdell hired the Law School’s first full-time librarian. He discontinued the practice of providing students with individual textbooks and pushed for the thorough collecting of law reports.

In 1883, the Library was moved to a fireproof room in Austin Hall (now Ames Court Room). Seven years later, Dean Langdell reported that a new library building was needed. By the turn of the century the Library was growing at the rate of over 6,000 volumes per year.

Growth of the Library

Between 1906 and 1907, the south wing of Langdell Hall, including a seven storied stack room, was built. By 1910, Langdell housed over 120,600 volumes. In 1912, the Library acquired a 14,000-volume international law collection from the Marquis de Olivart; the collection had to be smuggled out by night after the deposit of gold bullion in the Marquis’s Paris bank. Between 1913 and 1932, several additional important collections were acquired.

In 1948 the north end of the Langdell reading room, having been used by the government to develop the Sperry bombsight, was converted to a three-story stack and display room for rare books.

In 1960, the International Legal Studies Library was constructed with open-stacks; and the overall Library held nearly 1 million volumes.


The Library remains the largest academic law library in the world, and continues to reinvent itself to meet the needs of the law school.

In 1981, for example, the library underwent a significant reorganization. The library sought to provide a standardized “machine-readable” catalog, expand the microforms room, purchase “telefacsimile” machines, and acquire more than one LEXIS terminal (and add Westlaw). In 1988, the library had 1.45 million volumes.

In 1997, the library underwent a significant physical renovation. At this time, air-conditioning was installed, elevators were added – as were women’s bathrooms (where there had only been one).

In 2009, the library (again) reorganized to meet strategic initiatives. Functions are being streamlined for greater efficiency that will enable the library to expand services to continue to meet new demands. The library seeks to offer empirical research support, collect more interdisciplinary and international materials – and to support Harvard Law School’s Programs of Study.

There are four main library service units. The Collection Development and Digitization unit differs most markedly from any unit in the previous organization. It consolidates support for the library’s digital initiatives in one place, with the goal of creating an in-house digital lab.

Image credit: Detail, Portrait of Christopher Columbus Langdell by Frederick Porter Vinton, 1892, olvwork129054. Harvard Law School Library. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.