Harvard Law School announced today that its library—the largest law library in the world—has received its most significant gift in more than 150 years, a major collection of rare English law books spanning 400 years of legal writing from 1481 to 1881. The books, which total more than 1,000 volumes, are a gift of the late Henry N. Ess III and include a treatise known as Abridgements of the Statutes, which some scholars believe is the first legal book ever printed in England.

To celebrate the arrival of the Ess gift, approximately 200 people will attend a reception and dinner tonight on the Harvard Law School campus. Guests will include legal historians, scholars, librarians, and other members of the Harvard Law community.

“I can think of no better home for the largest private collection of early English law books than the Harvard Law library in Langdell Hall,” said Robert C. Clark, Dean of the Law School. “Students, faculty, and legal scholars from around the globe will have access to the very foundations of Anglo-American law and even the development of modern society.”

Among the more notable volumes in the Ess collection are first editions of John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, two cornerstones of modern political thought. The collection also includes a first edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, considered the most thorough treatment of English law ever produced by one person.

Combined with existing volumes in the Harvard Law library, the new additions help constitute the largest collection of early English law books in the world. “No library in England, or anywhere else in the world, begins to approach the strength of the Harvard Law School library in Anglo-American legal history,” said Dan Coquillette, a noted legal historian and visiting faculty member at Harvard Law School.

A 1944 graduate of Harvard Law School, Ess was a partner at the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell and a distinguished member of the community. He was a patron of the literary arts, and served as a longtime board member of the Vincent Astor Foundation, an organization that provides funding for large cultural institutions as well as groups that help the underprivileged.

Langdell Hall, home of the Harvard Law School library, includes more than 1.6 million volumes and 15,000 serial subscriptions. Named for Christopher Columbus Langdell, the first Dean of Harvard Law School, the building was originally built in 1907 and completely renovated in 1997. Its entrance is framed by an oft-cited quotation from the British jurist and scholar, Henri de Bracton: non sub homine sed sub deo et lege, “not under man but under God and law.” Some of Bracton’s masterpieces are included in the Ess gift.

Note: Journalists are welcome to view and photograph a portion of the collection, and speak with librarians and legal historians about the significance of the Ess gift.

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