By LEON SCIOSCIA
The Law Library of Congress was created by an Act of Congress in 1832. That year President Andrew Jackson signed the bill into law stating that:
“…be it enacted by the Senate and House…that it shall be the duty of the librarian to prepare an apartment near…Congress…for the purpose of a law library.” [2 U.S. Code 132, 134, 135, 137]. Since then the Law Library’s mission has expanded beyond service to Congress, to include making its resources available to the Supreme Court, other branches of the U.S. Government, the American public and the global legal community.
On July 14, 2007, the Law Library of Congress will celebrate its 175th anniversary. It owes its existence to those who believed in a vision of a law library to serve the nation’s lawmakers. Little did they know that this law library would one day become the de facto national law library, with an unparalleled collection of 2.6 million volumes and a staff of 100 librarians, lawyers, other professionals and support staff who analyze comparative and foreign law materials and sustain and preserve a universal collection of law for this and future generations.
The treasures of the past are the sources of future wisdom. This is true of the Law Library’s collection, which ranges from copies of the Code of Hammurabi to the laws of today’s emerging democracies.
When the Library of Congress was established as an in-house reference library for Congress in 1800—the year the government moved from Philadelphia to the new city of Washington—law books made up nearly 20 percent of the core collection. The majority of these were in English and dealt with international law.
When the British burned the Capitol in 1814, the congressional library was destroyed, including the fledgling collection of legal materials. The following year, Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library to Congress to rebuild the collection. Of the 6,487 titles that the Library acquired from Jefferson, 475 were law titles (318 published in England). They included Virginia laws and court decisions, while material from other states (which Jefferson had classified as “foreign law”) remained limited. Although the Library received copies of all federal laws and Supreme Court decisions, obtaining state laws and decisions of state courts remained a problem for decades.
Today, the Law Library is the custodian of approximately 2.6 million volumes including 25,000 rare manuscripts and legal materials published before 1801. The oldest document dates from the 13th century. The bulk of the collection relates to American law, which includes Confederate and Native American law, but the holdings also include materials from Great Britain, other Commonwealth countries, France, Spain and Russia. By contrast, the entire Catalogue of the Law Department of the Library of Congress in 1869 listed 26,936 volumes.
As the law collections grew, the need for physical space also increased. Since February 1981, the Law Library of Congress has been located in the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress, across the street from the U.S. Capitol. Prior to its current location, the Law Library was housed in the Thomas Jefferson Building in Room 119, a beautifully appointed room with a view of the Capitol. This was in sharp contrast to its previous home in the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol, which it occupied for 90 years. While this site is of historical significance, the dimly lit space has been described in guidebooks of the period as poorly ventilated and overcrowded. Today the Law Library’s expansive reading room and its administrative offices occupy the second floor of the Madison Building, while the sub-basement provides more than a football field of compact collection storage space.
While the primary mission of the Library of Congress is to serve the nation’s lawmakers, its founders could not have envisioned today’s global digital world. However, Jefferson believed in a universal collecting policy that continues to influence the Library’s acquisitions efforts today. In fact, the need for foreign legal research sources has driven the Law Library’s acquisition efforts over the years to such an extent that certain collections in the Law Library exceed those of the countries of origin.
The legal minds in Congress who founded the Law Library similarly planted the seeds of today’s global collecting policy by acquiring foreign legal publications soon after the start of the U.S.-Mexican War. Addressing the House of Representatives in 1790, Rep. Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts said that what was needed in a congressional library was “a collection of treaties and alliances from the earliest periods…sundry books on the civil and common law.”
Law Librarian of Congress Rubens Medina has presided over the growth of a global legal library that goes beyond treaties and alliances and has helped evolve the Law Library into an organization that deals with global materials. “The Law Library meets the challenges of [a new] reality with digital technology to ensure that its online legal resources are as comprehensive, up-to-date, and as authentic as possible,” he said.
In recent years, the Law Library has been playing a leadership role in the creation of the collaborative Global Legal Information Network (GLIN), a database of laws, regulations, judicial decisions, and other complementary legal sources contributed by 46 governmental agencies and international organizations (www.glin.gov). GLIN members contribute the official full texts of published documents to the database in their original language. Each document is accompanied by a summary in English and subject terms selected from the multilingual index to GLIN.
Publications and Resources
“Library of Congress Law Library: An Illustrated Guide” was published in 2006, with support from the James Madison Council, the Library’s private-sector advisory group. In the preface, the Law Librarian wrote, “The Library’s collections are a premier source of information on law, whether on current legislation or some aspect of the legal heritage of the United States or of other nations. The treasures depicted in these pages will remain timeless reminders of the richness and diversity of the world’s legacy of law.”
The guide, which can be ordered at www.loc.gov/shop/, spans the Library’s incomparable collections, from general law and forms of legal literature to the legal specialties of religious law, the law of indigenous peoples, and Asian and African law. It also introduces the layman to long-established legal structures that touch everyone’s lives today, including works that laid the foundations for civil law and common law systems. Finally, the guide includes a chapter on international law that ends with a discussion of the field of humanitarian law, which emerged during the past 150 years.
The Law Library’s online publications seek to reach across the increasingly borderless global legal environment. The Guide to Law Online (www.loc.gov/law/guide/) is a vast network of links to Web sites of primary and secondary national and international legal and legislative information services. The Multinational Collections Database (www.loc.gov/mulp/) is a web-based research aid designed to assist international, comparative and foreign law researchers. The Global Legal Monitor (www.loc.gov/law/public/glm/) is an online publication providing significant and timely legal development writings with a global impact. The Law Library also keeps members of Congress informed on matters pertaining to international law through the World Law Bulletin.
Additional resources can be found by visiting the Law Library’s Web site at www.loc.gov/law/.
Legal Research and Outreach
The Law Library provides reference service to members of Congress and their staff, the federal judiciary, other governmental constituencies, members of the bar, scholars and the general public in the Law Library Reading Room. In addition to its regular hours of service, the reading room remains open whenever Congress is in session.
“Beyond its role as the national law library and curator of the written word, the Law Library of Congress is a legal research center,” said Medina. “Our staff of foreign-trained attorneys from around the world and senior U.S. law reference specialists interprets complex and dynamic legal issues for congressional, judicial and executive branch requesters.”
Projects and proposals for research using the Law Library’s collections are also encouraged. Classes are offered to members of Congress on subjects such as federal legal research, legislative history and statutory research. The Law Library hosts a diverse series of public programs and events through its Friends of the Law Library and the Global Legal Information Network Foundation.
As the Law Library marks its 175th anniversary, one can only wonder what its third century will hold. Clearly it will continue to undergo a global transformation tied to technological advances. During its first two centuries, the institution has responded to changes in areas such as acquisitions, research, reference and preservation. Undoubtedly, future generations will be called upon to adapt to rapid changes in technology.
While the size of its collection has grown and its physical location has changed, the Law Library’s dedication to preserving the Rule of Law has remained steadfast. Of its achievements, the Law Librarian said, “We hope our forefathers would be pleased with our progress and the ways in which our belief in justice, equality and peace inspires the programs of the Law Library of Congress.”
Leon Scioscia is special assistant to the Law Librarian of Congress.