In an era of downloading books to electronic readers and accessing materials across the world online, some have found it easy to diminish the power of the printed word – referring to books as archaic with printing presses considered at risk of becoming extinct.
“I think as libraries are focusing increasingly on electronic formats, what’s moving to the fore in importance are special collections such as rare books,” observed Bruce S. Johnson, the Thomas J. and Mary E. Heck and Leo H. Faust Memorial Designated Professor of Law and director of the Michael E. Moritz Law Library.
The Moritz Law Library’s rare book collection includes some 2,500 volumes, with the oldest imprints dating from the early- to mid-1500s. Most are Anglo-American, Johnson explained. There also are foreign works and pieces written in French and Latin by civil and ecclesiastical law scholars.
“It’s somewhat ironic that as we move to electronic formats, this very old printed material increases in importance. I can go to the rare book collection, pull something off the shelf, and read it. All you need is a light,” Johnson said. “Nobody will be able to read off of our hard drives or flash drives 480 years from now. Print has a much longer life.”
Johnson and Mary Hamburger, assistant director for technical services, pulled from the law library’s shelves a few of the more intriguing rare books and artifacts, in addition to sharing details of how the collection has grown.
The Moritz Law Library was formed in December 1891 when the widow of the Honorable Henry C. Noble of Circleville, Ohio donated his library to the newly established law school at The Ohio State University. “The collection is as old as the law school,” said Johnson, pointing to a number of volumes from the Noble collection in his office.
Published in 1538, this is one of the Moritz Law Library’s oldest books, a biographical dictionary of Roman jurists. “There’s nothing fancy about it, but this is one of the earliest books in the collection,” Johnson said. The text, written in Latin, is by Bernardino Rutilio, one of the first humanists to compile historical biographies of earlier lawmakers. The library’s copy is a scarce, early reprint published in Lyon, France from a previous edition.
What makes a book rare?
“We generally regard American imprints published around 1850 or earlier as rare, and we make special efforts to preserve these older books for future users. Things become rarer the farther back you go,” Johnson said. “Part of the value of rare books is that they have survived for so long.”
Remarkably, books published before 1850 are sometimes in better shape than later publications printed on acid-based paper, which disintegrates more rapidly.
An Influential Librarian
Ervin H. Pollack, professor of law, was director of the Moritz Law Library from 1947 to 1972. He acquired many of the volumes in the rare book collection. “There was a period after World War II when you could buy rare law books from Europe inexpensively, and he cast a fairly wide net,” Johnson said. The library continues to purchase rare books, but much more selectively.
Artifacts from Confederate States
Other than age and scarcity, a number of variables may influence whether a book is deemed “rare.” Autographs or inscriptions by famous authors or former owners, unique bindings or illustrations and associations with historical events all add distinction. For instance, the library’s collection of older state session laws and statutes includes some Confederate imprints.
The library’s 1680 reprinting of the first edition of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth of Ecclesiastical and Civil, originally published in 1651, covers the structure of society and government and is considered one of the earliest examples of social contract theory.
Notable early American patent
One of the most interesting items preserved by the Moritz Law Library is the fourth patent granted by the United States government. Issued to Philadelphia printer Francis Bailey on Jan. 29, 1791 for inventing new methods of printing type to prevent counterfeiting, the patent bears the signatures of President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Attorney General Edmund Jennings Randolph. Jefferson’s signature also appears on the back with the memo: “Delivered to the within named Francis Bailey this thirtyfirst [sic] of January 1791.”
A disastrous fire in 1836 destroyed most of the original documents at the Patent Office, making this artifact even more of a treasure. The patent belonged to George Eaton ’34, the great-great-grandson of Bailey. Eaton’s wife donated it to the College in 1960, at the time of the law school’s building dedication.
The patent was recently restored, remounted, and reframed. Visitors can see a high-quality scanned image in the bookcases outside of the library’s main doors.
A Persian Pearl
Published in 1899, this book is notable not only for its famous lawyer-author, Clarence Darrow, but because of the publisher. The Roycroft Press was part of the Roycroft community, an important part of the American arts and crafts movement. The Roycroft Press is notable for the works it published, and the artistry of the printing. This artistry is on display in the red drop-caps in this book, for example. “An important reason for acquiring rare books is part preservation – we are buying an artifact and preserving it for future generations,” Johnson said.
The Stotter Gift
In 2007, retired San Francisco attorney Lawrence H. Stotter ’58 donated his collection of rare law books to the Moritz Law Library. His more than 200 volumes were published from the 16th to 20th centuries. They focus on family law – marriage, divorce, adoption, and the rights of women and children – which was his area of practice.
“He bought his first book while at an ABA meeting and caught the collecting bug,” Johnson said.
Some of Johnson and Hamburger’s favorites include A Collection of Some Principal Common Laws of England by Sir Francis Bacon, written in 1636; Wedlock or the Right Relation of the Sexes, published in 1869; and God’s Revenge Against Murder and Adultery, published in 1779, which features page-turning illustrations that accompany the text.
“It’s really in good shape,” Hamburger said of God’s Revenge. “It’s been maintained beautifully.”
Ohio Lawyer’s Musings
Sometimes book dealers bring archival materials to Johnson’s attention as well. A few years ago, the library acquired the diaries, billings, and other items belonging to Eastern Ohio lawyer William T. Perry, 1858-1922. “He read law, and the diaries encompass that time, which I thought was interesting and possibly valuable to those studying the evolution of legal education,” Johnson said.
Remarks from Long Ago
Many rare books have touched many readers throughout their long years of existence. In some cases, readers have left their marks as well. Such is the case with the library’s copy of the Treatise of Equity, published in 1737. Eloquent notes and scribbles can be found in the margin, including a hand pointing to an area of particular interest to one reader, where today’s reader might simply mark an asterisk.
Currently, the focus of additions to the library’s rare book collection is on titles that would complement the Stotter Collection on domestic and family law, election law, criminal law, and Ohio legal history and development.
“I think the value is to create a collection that over time will provide a resource for scholars to use,” Johnson said, “and the collection would be more usable if we had a rare book room.”
Currently, the rare book collection is maintained in a secure area, but the storage rooms are not specifically climate controlled and lack space in which to work and display the collection properly. Johnson hopes that the Moritz Law Library will one day have a true rare book room to house the collection and to support the preservation and use by future generations of these library treasurers