Juan Felipe Herrera visits The Law Library of Congress and discusses the Hispanic Law Collection with curator of rare books Nathan Dorn. View the webcast, read the Poet Laureate’s poem response, and learn more about the collection from the curator.
After visiting with Nathan Dorn, curator of Rare Books in the Library of Congress in the Law Library, I was astounded at how our sense of what is right and wrong—that is, rules on how to conduct ourselves in society—has ancient roots. For example, the state of Louisiana has legal codes that go back to the time of the Visigoths. This West Germanic nomadic tribe's code also influenced the legal system of Spain known as Las Siete Partidas, the seven-part legal code during King Alfonso's reign in 1251-1265. King Alfonso used each letter of his name to start the first word of each principle, for a code on such topics as tyranny, definitions of "The People," proper virtues, and inheritance. It is hard to imagine how codes we follow to this day were keenly envisioned so long ago. Think on this: Democracy in the USA is based on global thinking and cultural sharing—this is a most valuable and positive exploration. Learning is made of deep and surprising findings. In a matter of seconds, it can happen to you . . . at the Library of Congress with such expert librarians!
Please create an acrostic, as King Alfonso did in the thirteenth century. Find a word with seven letters—it could even be your name. Use each letter to start a line in your poem. Each line will be our guideline to a better world. I believe in you!
Let all be united Inspire every street yard and city block—with your songs Beauty blossoms in all voices Everyone participates in everything Read all people's stories in all languages Togetherness is possible with respect You must make extra effort to make this acrostic a reality
Juan Felipe Herrera
21st Poet Laureate of the United States
Hispanic Legal Materials at the Library of Congress
The Law Library’s collection of Hispanic legal materials includes hundreds of thousands of physical volumes and microfilm items which together account for a comprehensive record of the legal literature of the Iberian Peninsula, Latin America and other Spanish and Portuguese speaking jurisdictions around the world. In collecting for these jurisdictions, the Law Library has tried to cover official gazettes, constitutional literature, chronological publications of statutes and session laws, hearings, court reports, decisions of administrative courts, finding aids, commentary, legal periodicals and reference titles. Among these is a sub-collection of approximately 1,200 volumes of particularly rare and valuable Hispanic legal documents. The books I shared with Juan Filipe when he visited the Law Library’s Reading Room are just a few examples of the riches of that collection.
One of the things I tried to convey by selecting the items that I showed to Juan Filipe was the continuity of the law – the idea that law is in some ways an unbroken stream that flows from a largely unseen source that began thousands of years ago through to the basic sources of law that legal systems still regard today. To illustrate this, we looked at an early medieval treatise and the compilation from the high middle ages that it influenced, and then we looked at the impact both of these had on Latin American and U.S. American law through the 19th century. Legal history is also a story of change and discontinuity. But that story unfolds against a backdrop of very persistent traditions, which become much more evident when you look at the historical bibliography of law: forms and traditions cross national, linguistic and temporal boundaries in a way that makes modern civilization seem much more unified and less fragmented than it may appear from the daily news.
Curator of Rare Books, Law Library of Congress