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Detail view of three leather- and vellum-bound volumes on a bookshelf.
Credit: Brooks Kraft, 2014.

In keeping with the Library’s mission to support the teaching and research programs of the Harvard Law School, Historical & Special Collections collects, catalogs, and provides access to printed materials, manuscripts, and visual materials that document the history of the law in general and that of the Harvard Law School in particular.

Rare Books & Early Manuscripts

Photograph of 15th century illustrated manuscript, pages turned by two sets of hands.

Materials from around the world, from 1160 to today

International in scope, the Rare Books collection contains over 100,000 printed books, pamphlets, broadsides and other material from the earliest days of printing through the twentieth century. The Early Manuscripts collection contains legal materials written from the 1160s onward, including illuminated manuscripts and scrolls.


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Modern Manuscripts

Photograph of man examining papers, surrounded by boxes and books.

Collections of papers from legal scholars, judges, and important cases

The Modern Manuscripts collection contains more than 250 individual collections that include papers of members of the bar, bench, and legal teaching profession. In addition, it includes papers relating to specific U.S. court cases and individually bound and loose English and American manuscripts written after 1701.


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Art & Visual Materials

Three black and white photos of Austin Hall on a table, hands in blue gloves hold the left photo.

Paintings, photographs, three-dimensional artifacts, and more

The Art and Visual Materials collection, one of the world’s largest collections of visual materials relating to the law, documents the history of legal systems in general and the common law in particular through prints, photographs, paintings, sculpture, and three-dimensional artifacts.

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The Red Set

Typescript cover page of Blackletter, volume 1, September 30, 1975.

A collection of materials created by faculty, students, and the Harvard Law School

The Red Set contains faculty publications created during their years at HLS; student papers including prize essays, theses, and dissertations; publications created by Law School offices, departments, and programs; and publications of law reviews and other student organizations.

More About The Red Set

Harvard Digital Collections

Harvard Digital Collections provides access to more than 6 million publicly available, digitized items from Harvard’s collections, including from Historical & Special Collections.

Anyone can setup a Digital Collections Account to save searches and create lists of favorites to study, cite, and share later.

Harmful Language Statement

Material in Historical & Special Collections (HSC) may contain culturally insensitive language or subject matter. The finding aids and catalog records used to describe the material may include language that is harmful or offensive. We recognize that collecting, describing, and providing access to materials is not neutral. HSC is committed to investigating and is working to remediate past and current oppressive practices. To that end, we are changing or providing additional context for problematic terminology, and are working to reveal the voices of people in our collections who have been silenced or obscured.
We welcome your feedback and any questions or concerns you may want to share.

Collection Development Policy

In support of teaching, research, and collecting missions of the Harvard Law School, the Harvard Law School Library (HLS), and the Harvard Library, Historical & Special Collections (HSC) preserves and documents the history of law, legal education, and the Harvard Law School. To accomplish this, HSC collaborates with the Harvard University Archives, with libraries inside and outside of Harvard, with dealers and donors, and with other external partners.

HSC collects in the following areas: rare books (all dates) and early manuscripts (through 1699); modern manuscripts (from 1700 to present), the Red Set (material related to the history of HLS); and the art and visual materials collection. HSC’s collections include material in hard-copy, digitized, and born-digital formats. HSC promotes its collections via a thriving digitization program; physical and online exhibits; faculty and community outreach; and publication of finding aids and research guides. HSC supports the research needs of the Harvard Law School, Harvard University, and the scholarly world at large both online and in the controlled and secure environment of the Historical & Special Collections reading room, the Root Room.

HSC evaluates donations and purchase using the following criteria: appropriateness of the subject matter; current and future research value; aesthetic quality; physical condition; and ownership and copyright restrictions or limitations. We rarely accept materials that come with significant restrictions or display requirements. If we are unable to accept a donation offer, we may be able to suggest alternative options for the donor.

Summary of Collecting Fields

  • Rare Books, Printed Materials, and Early Manuscripts

    HSC acquires printed materials and early manuscripts (through 1699) that document the history of law, especially that of Western Europe (including the United Kingdom) and the United States. We rarely collect material that has already been digitized, or that we already own, unless it contains significant annotations, has a desirable provenance, or is artifactually significant. To build upon existing strengths, HSC focuses upon the following areas:

    • US and UK imprints – primary law, treatises, case reporters, works on legal education and practice, etc. – through 1900;
    • Other Western European imprints through 1900, particularly those that build on our strengths in treatises; incunabula; civil and canon law; international law; legal scholarship and teaching; and French customary law and royal administrative acts;
    • Anglo-American and European trials and popular trial literature through 1900; twentieth- century trials that set important legal precedent, represented emerging areas of the law, involved HLS faculty/prominent alumni, and of significant cultural importance;
    • Eighteenth and nineteenth-century English crime broadsides;
    • Russian and Soviet law through 1960;
    • Chinese law through 1960;
    • Printed materials related to the war crimes tribunals at Nuremburg and Tokyo; and
    • Editions of works by important legal thinkers not covered by above criteria.
  • Modern Manuscripts

    HSC collects modern manuscripts dating from 1700 to the present, collaborating with the Harvard University Archives and other repositories when appropriate. We attempt to collect comprehensively the papers of tenured Harvard Law School faculty. We selectively collect the papers of HLS graduates who have made significant contributions to the study and practice of the law. Single documents and collections pertaining to law practice, the judiciary, legal education, and notable trials are also of interest, as long as they complement HSC’s collections. We collect materials in all formats, including hard-copy, mixed, and born-digital formats.

    Areas of collecting focus include:

    • Collections of the professional papers of tenured Harvard Law School deans and faculty;
    • Collections of the records and papers of HLS student organizations and other HLS groups that would not automatically go to the Harvard University Archives as part of formal university business;
      • Records sent directly to the Harvard University Archives include the administrative files of the Office of the Dean, other HLS offices, and faculty minutes;
    • Collections of law-related materials by or about historically underrepresented individuals or groups with an HLS connection;
    • Materials produced by or about United States Supreme Court Justices;
    • Material relating to significant trials in the history of law and litigation, provided they complement the general library collection and HSC’s printed materials collection;
    • Collections of Harvard Law School alumni whose papers reflect highly significant influence on public policy, legal principles, legal education, and law practice;
    • Records of public or private legal organization that significantly influence public policy.
  • The Red Set

    The Red Set is a collection of publications by or related to the Harvard Law School. It contains the following material, in both print and electronic formats:

    • Monograph publications (including supplements) of works by current tenured faculty.
      • Offprints and separate articles are not actively solicited and are added to the Red Set only by donation;
    • Student-created material including prize essays, graduate theses and dissertations, and notebooks recording lectures;
    • Serial and selected other publications created by Harvard Law School offices, departments, and programs;
    • Publications of student-run law reviews and other student organizations.
  • Art & Visual Materials

    The Harvard Law School collects art and visual materials in a variety of formats including paintings, sculpture, paper prints such as engravings and lithographs, photographic prints, digitized and born-digital materials, textiles, and three-dimensional objects. The subject matter of these materials falls into two broad categories:

    Items relating to the history of Harvard Law School and its role in the development and history of legal education. HSC collects fairly comprehensively in these areas.

    • Images and artifacts documenting the Law School’s faculty, alumni, staff, and students;
    • Images and artifacts documenting Law School activities;
    • Images and artifacts documenting the Law School’s physical environment.

    Items relating to the history of the law with an emphasis on American common law, but also including eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British law and twentieth- and twenty-first-century international law. HSC collects quite selectively in these areas.

    • Images of people who have made noteworthy contributions to the history of the law;
    • Materials related to significant American and international trials;
    • Iconography of justice or the law (symbols of justice, lawgivers, etc.);
    • Material illustrating legal practice or process;
    • Material illustrating societal and/or cultural attitudes toward the legal professional and legal institutions.