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Although the Historical & Special Collections Department was only organized as an administrative unit in 1985, the history of the collecting of historical legal materials at the Harvard Law School Library dates to the founding of the Law School. 

Historical & Special Collections Timeline

  • 19th Century

    The resolutions adopted by the Harvard Corporation on May 14, 1817 that established “a school for the instruction of students at law under the patronage of the University” also stated that “a complete Law Library be obtained for their use as soon as means for the purpose be found.” By 1840 the Library’s holdings exceeded 6,000 volumes, thanks to gifts by Nathan Dane, Joseph Story, Christopher Gore, and other early benefactors. In 1842 the Visiting Committee could report that every citation in Blackstone could be verified in the Library.

    Writing in 1899 Albert Dicey, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford, reported that the “library constitutes the most perfect collection of the legal records of the English people to be found in any part of the English-speaking world.”

  • 1900-1930s

    The first half of the twentieth century saw a remarkable growth in the Library’s collections of primary materials devoted to the study of legal history.

    In 1912, the Library acquired the 14,000-volume law library formed by the Marquis de Olivart of Madrid, the catalogue of which for many years had served as the standard bibliography of international law. A year later, the collection of early English law collected by the English barrister George Dunn, was purchased en bloc for the School. This acquisition, augmented in the intervening years by gift and purchase, now contains copies of more than 90 percent of extant English law books printed before 1601.

    In 1931 the Library obtained the jurisprudence section of the library formed by the Princes of Stolberg in Wernigerode, Germany. Among these 10,000 volumes were legal incunabula; international law documents from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and a large collection of Roman law, canon law, and civil law.

  • 1940s-1960s

    By the end of World War II, it was apparent that the Library needed professional staff and appropriate facilities to care for its valuable historical collections.

    In a “Statement by the Faculty,” which formed the preface to the prospectus that was sent to potential donors to a Treasure Room fund, Dean Griswold wrote:

    As early as 1942 the Director of the University Library suggested that in the interests of scholarship we might have to surrender our precious books and manuscripts to the care of the Houghton Library [Harvard University’s rare books and manuscripts library, the exhibition hall of which provided the inspiration for the design of the Treasure Room], where the bulk of the University’s literary treasures are kept under well-nigh perfect physical conditions. He and we prefer that this should not be done. Unseen, as at present, the collection fails of its full function. Our students can best appreciate this rare heritage of law only if its materials are both visible and readily accessible on the premises. To fulfill our responsibilities to the world of scholarship, improved facilities for protecting, showing, and using the collection are essential. To discharge our obligation to those who study here, the working, storage, and exhibition quarters must be in the Law School itself.

    More than 1,500 alumni and friends of the School contributed $55,000 to the fund, and the Treasure Room and adjacent stacks opened for use on August 15, 1948.

  • 1970s-1990s

    Over the next few decades, the Treasure Room was largely successful in accomplishing the goals that Dean Griswold and the faculty envisioned. In particular, the Library began to stage educational exhibitions to publicize its resources and programs.

    The Treasure Room’s first two curators, Eleanor Little and Edith Henderson, presented exhibitions focusing on the historical collections of the Library. With the addition in the 1970s of curators for manuscripts and legal art, the size and frequency of exhibitions increased dramatically due to the efforts of the first two incumbents, Erika Chadbourn and Bernice Loss.

    In the 1980s, the Manuscripts Department staged a series of exhibits that featured the Sacco-Vanzetti, Holmes, Frankfurter, and Hastie Collections. This series brought the Library national attention through articles published in the New Yorker and in various newspapers.

    By the late 1970s, the original space set aside for special collections was full. More materials in the Library’s general collections were recognized as deserving special care; these alone would fill the Treasure Room stacks several times over. The Treasure Room, functioning as both an exhibition hall and as a special reading room, proved unsatisfactory in the space formerly occupied by a classroom. The Treasure Room was not designed to accommodate portraits and other examples of the school’s growing collections of legal art.

    In 1978, the Library addressed the first of these concerns by constructing climate-controlled, compact stacks. At the same time, it assumed custody of the School’s legal art.

    The creation of the Special Collections Department in 1985, placed into one administrative unit the responsibility for the acquisition, cataloging, preservation, and research use of its rare book, manuscript, and art collections. With a revitalized exhibitions program and ever increasing use of the collections by scholars, it became increasingly apparent that the Treasure Room could not continue to serve simultaneously the several purposes for which it was originally intended.

    In May 1990, the Root Room, an informal student lounge on the fourth floor of Langdell, was converted into a reading room for researchers consulting special collections; the Treasure Room continued to be used for exhibitions and lectures.

    When the Library was renovated in 1997, the Root Room was refurbished, along with direct access for staff by stair and elevator to the two floors of compact stacks that house the the rare book and manuscript collections. Two floors of office and work space for Historical & Special Collections staff adjoin the Root Room. A new office and visual materials storage area was constructed above the renovated Treasure Room, renamed the Caspersen Room in honor of Finn W. Caspersen ’66.

  • 2000-present

    Since the turn of the twenty-first century, members of the department have worked to integrate its collections into the life of the Law School and beyond, connecting them with researchers onsite, in the classroom, and around the world. In keeping with the Harvard Law School Library’s guiding principle of “Collections to Connections,” the team manages a physical and online exhibits program, hosts classes, tours, and pop-up exhibits, and participates in Library activities such as Love Your Library Fest and Haunted Halloween Tours. Staff have also made the collection more accessible through cataloging and digitization.

    In 2009, the Harvard Law School Library reorganized to meet strategic initiatives, and the department was renamed Historical & Special Collections (HSC). Two years later, the HVAC system for the two floors of closed HSC stacks was upgraded to meet current standards. In connection with this upgrade, the contents of the stacks (paintings, rare books, and manuscripts) were temporarily moved out of the building for the first time in the Library’s history.

    Here are some twenty-first century collecting highlights:

    Here are some conservation and digitization highlights:

History of the Root Room

Since 1990, the Elihu Root Room has been the Historical & Special Collections reading room: a secure and functional space for use of the Library’s rare books, manuscripts, and visual materials. It was named in honor of Elihu Root (1845-1937), a corporate lawyer and American statesman who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for brokering more than 20 international peace treaties.

Root’s colleague, Henry L. Stimson (A.M. 1890) donated funds to Harvard Law School in 1925 for the endowment of an Elihu Root Professorship. In 1938, with Stimson’s consent, the President and Fellows of Harvard College voted to use the principal and accumulated income of the bequest to establish a reading room in Austin Hall. The plan was shifted to Langdell Hall, where in 1939 the student lounge on the south side of the fourth floor was redecorated and renamed in his honor. A portrait of Elihu Root, acquired by the Library in 1946, hangs outside the entrance to the Root Room.

History of the Caspersen Room

At the north end of the main reading room on the fourth floor is the Caspersen Room. It opened in 1948 as a memorial to the School’s students and alumni who died in World War I and II. Originally named the Treasure Room, it served as a place to preserve, display, and consult the Law School’s rare books and manuscripts. It currently functions as an exhibit hall for material in the Library’s collections and as a venue for special School functions.

In addition to an annually rotating exhibit, on long-term display are art and objects that document the history of the law and the Harvard Law School. Examples include: the portrait of Isaac Royall and family by Robert Feke, the round desk built for Dean Roscoe Pound, the portrait of the first class of women to graduate from HLS, the tin ammunition box that served as Justice Holmes’s lunch box, and furniture owned by HLS alumni who went on to become U.S. Supreme Court justices. The glass-fronted bookcases contain part of Dean Pound’s personal library.