Originally bound for Russian Emperor Nicholas II, a book covered in blue velvet with its title stamped in gold now makes its home in Harvard Law School’s Langdell Library. The book, usually kept in storage and out of sight from most library visitors, is now on public display as part of an HLS exhibit that encourages readers to judge books by their covers: “Law Books in Fancy Dress: Beautiful Bindings from the Harvard Law School Library’s Historical & Special Collections.”
“Often when people think of books in a law library they think, ‘How dull,’” says HLS rare books cataloger Mary Person, who with Historical & Special Collections manager Karen Beck, has put together the exhibit of volumes whose bindings belie that expectation.
Highlights include an 18th-century German booklet bound in gold and purple Dutch gilt paper and another volume with a marbled paper cover meant to imitate “tree calf,” a form of decoration in which calfskin is treated with chemicals to cause it to resemble a tree trunk with branches.
According to Beck, while many of the books in the collection, which date from as early as the 15th century, strike modern-day readers as particularly beautiful or unique, they would not have elicited the same reaction from readers when they were created. For example, the exhibit contains three books bound with leftover paper from other manuscripts—rubbish by 15th-century standards.
Beck said that as texts become increasingly available in digital formats, it is important for people to remain aware of the beauty and history inherent in books.
“Even if you have these books digitally, it is not quite the same,” she said. “Physicality is another aspect of the book worth noting.”
“Law Books in Fancy Dress: Beautiful Bindings from the Harvard Law School Library’s Historical & Special Collections” will be on display in the Langdell Library Caspersen Room through Aug. 5.