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Life of a Library:

A History of The George Washington University Law Library

Jennie C. Meade, Director of Special Collections

During the academic year 2015-2016, GW Law celebrated its 150th Anniversary by highlighting its history in a series of events, displays, and special programs.   And 2017 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Law Library’s move to its own building in Foggy Bottom, the Jacob Burns Law Library.  GW Law enjoys the distinction of being the oldest law school in the District of Columbia, calculated from the year it opened its doors at the end of the Civil War: 1865.  Howard School of Law was founded in 1869, Georgetown in 1870, American in 1896, and Catholic in 1897.  But as many know, 1865 was actually the date of GW Law’s re-establishment.


The bookplate formerly used by the Law Library has the look of a University bookplate modified to suit the law collection, perhaps in the period before the Law School’s merger with the National University School of Law in 1954. The University motto, “Deus Nobis Fiducia,” appears on the leaves of the open book beneath George Washington’s bust.



Table of Contents

GW Law in the 1820s: Columbian College’s Law Department
How to Start a Law School in 1826
Professors Carroll and Cranch
A GW law library in the 1820s? and where was the Law Department?
Prospectus for the Law Department, 1826
The course of study and teaching materials
Locations of GW Law and Its Library, 1826-Present
1865: Try back
Law instruction, curriculum, textbooks, and the Law Library in the 1860s
Turning the corner: the Law Library at 1420 H Street, NW
Some collection comparisons
University library organization
More rocky road
Recorded Law Librarians
Miss Helen Catherine Newman and the beginnings of a research collection
Bridges to the present: Hugh Y. Bernard, “collection builder”
Collections and Special Collections at the Law Library today.  Is the past prologue?
Sources Consulted
Photo Credits

GW Law in the 1820s: Columbian College’s Law Department. After Columbian College received its charter in 1821 by an Act of Congress, it was founder and Baptist minister Luther Rice who encouraged the establishment of both a Law and a Medical Department.  “Allow me to suggest for consideration the propriety of organizing, without delay, a Law Department, & a Medical Department, of the College.” 1 The Board of Trustees agreed, and in late autumn of 1821, the Board decided to establish both.  Although the Medical Department’s first course was offered in 1825, by early 1826 a Law Department had yet to materialize.  Then, at a Special Meeting of the Board on February 3, 1826, the Trustees appeared eager to accelerate the introduction of law studies into the College.  Deciding that “the time has now arrived when it is expedient to bring the same [the Law Department] into operation,” the Board forthwith elected its first professors unanimously, in order of seniority: William Cranch and William Thomas Carroll. 2  Their charge, assigned at that meeting by the Board, was to “prepare a system for the operation of [the Law Department], and report the same to this Board.” 3

The local press leapt upon the story of the launch of the new Law Department, with the Columbian Star reporting its imminent inauguration and the election of Cranch and Carroll as its first law professors, weeks before the By-Laws had been adopted by the Trustees. 4  That the founder of the Columbian Star was Columbian College founder Luther Rice, and that this newspaper was aimed in part at promoting the newly-established college, explains the near-instantaneous press coverage. 5

Cranch and Carroll completed their assignment posthaste.  Three weeks later at the next Special Meeting on February 24, the Board acknowledged letters from Cranch and Carroll accepting their appointments, and adopted the “By-Laws and Regulations for the Government of the Law Department” drafted by the two professors-elect. 6 GW Law at last was underway, and a “course of lectures was soon after delivered to a small class of students.”  7

Columbian College hit a significant snag early in its existence.  Heavily in debt after unauthorized start-up borrowing, and without the means to pay, the College declared a “vacation” from May 1, 1827, until the first Wednesday in September, later extended to May 14, 1828,8 to buy time to untangle the financial mare’s nest and its fallout.

The Trustees’ decision in 1826 to establish the Law Department in haste, after a deferral period of more than four years from its decision to introduce it, may have pointed to a pressing need for new sources of funding for the College, something the Trustees might have hoped a Law Department could provide.  In 1823, it had been discovered that the Reverend Luther Rice, simultaneously the College’s agent, treasurer, and de facto leader, had contracted large debts on behalf of the College, and by 1826, instead of the debts having been paid down, they loomed larger than ever.  Rice was cleared of wrongdoing, but it was acknowledged that he was a casual and disorganized record-keeper.  In the main, his optimism regarding Columbian College’s financial situation and the prospects for its betterment proved to be out of step with the economic realities of the depression which had followed the Panic of 1819.

Rice’s 1821 notion of the function of the prospective law professors as expressed in one of his letters appears short-sighted, since he does not mention lecturing as part of their responsibilities, but rather seems to view the professors as “examiners” who would evaluate candidates for degrees at the College, perhaps after having read law with a judge or in a law office.  He wrote that

nothing more…would be necessary than the electing of Professors, if any suitable persons can be found who will accept the appointment, without salaries, whose duty it should be to examine candidates for degrees in these professions [law and medicine] under the general idea that the College will confer degrees in these professions on said candidates at the recommendation of said professors.  It is thought that the organizing of these departments may subserve the reputation of the establishment, without increasing its expenditures, &, at the same time, do away the objection that arises, in the view of some, from the circumstance of having a Theological Department. 9

Perhaps Rice left unspoken the understanding that the professors would have the duty to lecture; regardless, the By-Laws and Regulations authored by Cranch and Carroll in 1826, as well as their Prospectus for the Law Department, make it clear that that the professors would lecture, and not just examine.

As for Rice’s appetite for finding professors who would accept an unsalaried appointment, it is possible he was successful on that front, since it is unclear from his ledgers whether Cranch or Carroll ever were paid during the period 1826-1828.

The law enterprise was to be short-lived.  After about two years from its inception in 1826, the nascent law school closed its doors for want of funds.  But GW Law and its Law Library can trace their origins to Columbian College’s 1826 attempt to establish a law school.  In fact, in addition to some printed law materials from the first Columbian College library, the Law Library today holds important manuscripts that entered its collection courtesy of half of its first elected faculty of 1826-1828.

William Thomas Carroll

A Maryland native and alumnus of the Litchfield Law School, William Thomas Carroll debuted as one of the two members of the Columbian College Law Department’s first faculty in 1826.

William Cranch

William Cranch already was well-established his judicial career when he began teaching law at the Columbian College Law Department.

Professors Carroll and Cranch.  That half of the faculty was William Thomas Carroll (1802-1863), scion of a prominent Maryland family, and Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1827 until his death.  He was the junior half of the faculty, only recently out of the Litchfield Law School; the senior half was William Cranch (1769-1855), chief justice of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia and second reporter of the U.S. Supreme Court.  It was an occasion when Justice Cranch delivered the law school’s first lecture on June 13, 1826, in the City Hall courtroom, with a “‘full attendance of the Bar, and a respectable audience, composed of both sexes’”; President (and Cranch’s cousin) John Quincy Adams was among the “learned and distinguished persons” attending.  The lecture attracted media coverage, and the Daily National Intelligencer, the preeminent newspaper in nineteenth-century Washington, reported that “‘The lecture was grave and lucid, and seemed to give great satisfaction to the audience… We hail with much satisfaction the commencement of this important branch of education in the District, under circumstances so favorable to its success and public usefulness.’” 10 Despite this auspicious beginning, the Trustees accepted Justice Cranch’s resignation on May 7, 1828, after the Law Department was forced to close when adequate funding failed to materialize.

The Litchfield notebooks are more than unique: they represent an artifactual link to the origins of GW Law and its library.

And although Justice Cranch’s inaugural City Hall lecture brought the new law school briefly to center stage in 1826 Washington, it is William Carroll’s Litchfield Law School manuscript notebooks that claim the spotlight today.  The Litchfield notebooks are more than unique: they represent an artifactual link to the origins of GW Law and its library.

A GW law library in the 1820s? and where was the Law Department? Although notes in the law school archives seem to be built on the assumption that a law library operated as part of the Law Department, available evidence does not support the existence of a “dedicated” law library.  Rather, it points to the possibility that the libraries of the two law professors, and perhaps some law works in the Columbian College library, provided the study materials for enrolled law students. The Columbian College building, on the site which became known as “College Hill,” was constructed on a 46.5-acre parcel of former farmland in 1822 (today known as Columbia Heights), and the campus boundaries were Columbia Road, 14th Street, Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue), and 13th Street.  The land had been purchased for $7,000.

Whether the Law Department maintained a physical presence there is uncertain, and at least one piece of evidence suggests an arrangement which may not have included establishing a conventional departmental space in the College Hill building.  The March 9, 1826, Prospectus, authored by Professors Cranch and Carroll (see below), states a plan to “commence a course of lectures on the first Monday in June, ensuing, at the City Hall, in the City of Washington.” 11 Indeed, Professor Cranch delivered the first lecture at City Hall according to plan, in the week after the projected start date; continuing the course of lectures at that location would have been logical, since City Hall now housed the D.C. courtrooms, and had become the center for legal activity in the District.

DC City Hall

Picture the City Hall, which housed the District of Columbia courts and officials beginning in 1822, without the dome, which never was built. Located at Judiciary Square, City Hall was Justice Cranch’s “command center:” he presided over his court and lectured to students of Columbian College’s Law Department in this building.

Not only would this have been a natural locus for law study, it also would have been convenient for Justice Cranch.  His courtroom was in City Hall, and traveling the mostly unpaved uphill three miles to College Hill to lecture daily, or nearly daily, as called for by the Prospectus, would have been onerous and ultimately impracticable.  Like the D.C. Circuit courts, which “floated” as judges held court in any available venue, including taverns and homes, until courtrooms were established in the City Hall building in 1822, the Law Department may have been “free-form,” consisting of lectures delivered at the City Hall rather than in classrooms on College Hill.  Given the circumstances, it is not a stretch to characterize the “Law Department” as an 1826 version of “virtual.”  The legal-flavored downtown neighborhood where City Hall was built would come to be known as Judiciary Square, home to federal and municipal courts, and today it continues its role as a key nexus of judicial activity in the District of Columbia.

One Law Department-related event mandated to take place on College Hill was the public examination of candidates for the Degrees of Bachelor or Doctor of Laws, before the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and other invitees.  Since this public examination required the presence of key College officials and academics for whom College Hill was home, the decision to hold the final leg of the journey to law graduate at this location would have been the logical choice. 12

Whether the school ever collected the library fee of ten dollars per head is unknown, and, given its precarious financial state and the Law Department’s brief lifespan, it is virtually certain that the College established no “Law Library” as a separate unit within either the Law Department or the College.

Professors Cranch and Carroll in their “By-Laws and Regulations” had contemplated a “Law Library” (or at least a law collection), and had considered how to help fund its operation and acquisitions. Their governing document required that “Each student, before he can receive a ticket of the Professors for admission to the Law Lectures, shall pay ten dollars to the Treasurer of the College, for the purpose of defraying the expenses of, and increasing the Law Library, to be expended under the direction of the Professors of Law, for the sole use of the School….” 13 Whether the school ever collected the library fee of ten dollars per head is unknown, and, given its precarious financial state and the Law Department’s brief lifespan, it is virtually certain that the College established no “Law Library” as a separate unit within either the Law Department or the College.  The more likely scenario for a library accommodation is the one outlined in the March 9 Prospectus:  “The students, until a law library for the school shall be otherwise provided, will have the use of the libraries of the professors.” 14 In the absence of adequate resources in the College library, law students probably shared the personal legal materials of Professors Carroll and Cranch, and Professor Carroll’s Litchfield notes would have figured prominently among them.

Another possibility, more likely than the existence of a dedicated law library and which easily could have co-existed with use of the professors’ libraries, is that at least some law materials resided in the Columbian College Library, which in 1825 held 3,034 volumes.  Many of these had been purchased in Europe by College professors on a buying trip and shipped back to the College 15.  The College library was located on the second and third floors of the College Hill building 16.  Different sources claim two faculty members had appointments as “Librarian:” Alexis Caswell, later President of Brown University 17, and the classical and Biblical scholar and tutor Thomas J. Conant 18.

One artifactual piece of evidence which supports the idea of a law collection in the College library is the hand-inscribed “Columbian College Library” identification on the title page of Samuel Burch’s 1823 A Digest of the Laws of the Corporation of the City of Washington, which is part of the Law Library’s collection today.  This volume appears to be one of two known surviving law imprints from the original Columbian College Library. The other is Colvin’s The Magistrate’s Guide and Citizens’ Counsellor (George Town, D.C., 1819), whose inscription indicates that it was a gift from the Reverend Luther Rice to the Library of the Columbian College.

The title page of Samuel Burch’s Digest of the Laws of the City of Washington (1823), from the Columbian College Library.

The title page of Samuel Burch’s A Digest of the Laws of the City of Washington (1823), from the Columbian College Library.

The title page of John Colvin's The Magistrate's Guide, and Citizen's Counsellor (George Town, D.C., 1819), with owner's signature cut away, showing the "Rev. L. Rice" donative inscription on the second leaf.

The title page of John Colvin’s The Magistrate’s Guide, and Citizen’s Counsellor (George Town, D.C., 1819), with owner’s signature torn away, showing the “Rev. L. Rice” donative inscription on the second leaf.

The Law Library also holds books stamped “Columbian College Library,” which postdate the Law School’s reopening in 1865, indicating that the law books had belonged to the main College library.  The most likely scenario in 1826-1828 seems to be that students relied on both the Columbian College library and the materials of their professors.

The course of study and teaching materials.  The first article of the By-Laws sets forth the general course of study for law students in the new law school.  It would include “so much of the Common and Statute law of England as may be considered applicable to this country, the Constitution and Laws of the United States, the laws in force in the District of Columbia, and the Constitutions and Laws of such of the several States as the Professors may find it convenient to lecture upon.” 19 The Prospectus expands this somewhat: “‘In addition to the course upon the usual heads of municipal law… it is intended to lecture upon the Constitution and Laws of the United States, the Admiralty Jurisdiction and practice of the courts of the United States, and upon the Law of Nations.’” 20 There was an emphasis on practice as well as theory: “A Moot Court will be holden once a week, for arguing questions of law previously propounded for discussion, and for trying fictitious causes.  In these courts it is intended that the proceedings shall be regular and formal, as well in making up the record, as in the process and pleadings – so that the student will, at the same time, acquire a knowledge of the practice, as well as of the theory, of the law.” 21

litchfield manuscript

The entry “Baron & Feme,” a leaf from one of William Thomas Carroll’s Litchfield notebooks.

Acquiring a full complement of teaching and study materials would have imposed additional expense upon the school and its students.  A more modest approach, combining the materials already in the collections of the two professors, with limited acquisition of books by the school, would have been desirable.  William Carroll would have depended upon his Litchfield notes, using them for his lectures at GW; it is likely that his students may also have copied and used them.  Of the twelve volumes of Litchfield manuscript notebooks held by the Law Library, the nine volumes labeled “Mr. Carroll’s Law Lectures” may have been the notes he used in his Law Department lectures, and apart from their importance as Litchfield notes are invaluable today as a record of the first course of law study presented at GW.22

 David Hoffman’s first law lecture at the University of Maryland (1823)

From Special Collections: William Cranch’s copy of David Hoffman’s first law lecture at the University of Maryland (1823). Professor Cranch may have used Hoffman’s book in his law teaching at Columbian College.

In addition to the Carroll notebooks, the Law Library holds William Cranch’s copy of David Hoffman’s 1823 introduction to his course of lectures at the Law Institute at the University of Maryland.  None of Justice Cranch’s Law Department teaching notes or lectures are known to have survived, and thus it is tempting to postulate that Cranch acquired Hoffman’s pamphlet specifically for use in his teaching at the Law Department.  If that is the case, the Law Library holds materials owned and used for teaching by both original faculty members at the new law school.  Although Cranch’s copy of the Hoffman pamphlet was recently acquired by the Law Library, William Thomas Carroll’s Litchfield notebooks arrived with him at the commencement of his professorial duties, and today are in Special Collections at the Law Library.

The Jacob Burns Law Library | Google Street View The Jacob Burns Law Library | Google Street View Columbia Heights Judiciary Square The Jacob Burns Law Library | Google Street View

1865: Try back.  “GW Law” experienced an intermission from 1828 until 1865, when the school reopened as the Columbian College of Law.  The College awarded a Bachelor of Laws degree, and the 1868 Columbian College catalogue states that classes were conducted after business hours beginning in the late afternoon, allowing “young men engaged in office duties to avail themselves of the facilities of the school.” 23 This was a two-year program which in 1898 was expanded to three years upon the recommendation of the American Bar Association. 24 In 1904 its name changed to The George Washington University Law School, and classes for full-time students were scheduled.  No records have materialized which identify the librarians or library staff from 1865 to 1904, and during this peripatetic phase the library may have been under the jurisdiction of one or more law faculty members, perhaps with some student help.  Law school libraries frequently were shepherded by a faculty member with an interest in the library, aided by students or other assistants.  Regardless, as former library director Hugh Bernard has noted, law librarianship as the profession we know now was nonexistent in the nineteenth century.  There were no library training programs until the latter part of the nineteenth century, and law-trained “librarians,” other than faculty members, would not typically have been part of the mix.

Law instruction, curriculum, textbooks, and the Law Library in the 1860s.  Law instruction was not yet based on the case method, but relied on lectures and textbooks.  The 1868 Columbian College catalogue records a Law Faculty of four, who would have been responsible for the prescribed “Daily Recitations, in connection with Text Books…the Teacher giving a prelection or commentary on the appointed lesson, and questioning each pupil both on the text and comment.  Students are desired to take notes of Lectures, and are expected to be prepared for examination by the Lecturer.” 25   This “Course of Recitations” covered “the important departments of Common Law and its Commentaries; of Criminal, Commercial, and Admiralty Jurisprudence; of Evidence and Pleading; and Equity Jurisprudence and Pleading.” 26 Specific textbooks for the course of study in law were listed in the 1868 catalogue, which stated that “The best in each department will always be chosen.”27 At that time, the “preferred selection” comprised the following works for the First Year, or Junior Course: Blackstone’s Commentaries, Williams on Real Property, Williams on Personal Property, Chitty on Contracts, Byles on Bills, and Kent’s Commentaries.  For the Second Year, or Senior Course, the catalogue identified Stephen on Pleading, Starkie on Evidence, Adams’ Equity, Mitford’s Chancery Pleading, Story on the Law of Partnership, and Parsons’ Maritime Law as the preferred selection.28

George A. King of the Class of 1872 noted in his piece, “The Law School Forty-Five Years Ago,” for Res Gestae, the publication produced by the Law School in recognition of its semi-centennial milestone in 1915, that the “style of instruction was based entirely upon the use of text books” and that the works used “were in the main English.” 29  All of the texts Mr. King recalled as having been part of the course of study were titles named in the 1868 catalogue. 30  Although Mr. King felt that he had received a thorough grounding in the law, he was unequivocal when he stated that “The methods of the present day based on the case system are doubtless more successful and exercise the student’s original powers to a higher degree.” 31 Mr. King matriculated somewhat too early to have enjoyed studying law by the case method; Christopher Langdell was introducing it at Harvard at about the time George King was beginning law school, in 1870.

As for the collection, the 1868 catalogue states that “the Library of the Law School will be furnished with all the important Text books, Reports, and other Books of reference.  The unequalled collection of the Congressional Library [Library of Congress] is open during six hours of each day to all who wish to examine any authority, or take notes from any book of reference, ancient or modern.” 32 Somewhat later, in 1901, accession records for the Law Library indicate that the majority of the volumes added to the collection that year were serial publications, and that library funds were concentrated on serials acquisition and subscription upkeep, a practice reflective of the nature of legal publishing, then as now.  The treatises that were added were largely private law titles in areas such as banking law, sales, code pleading, parties to actions, and landlord and tenant issues.  However, international law works as well as works in history and foreign trade also were received.33

Turning the corner: the Law Library at 1420 H Street, NW.  It is not until shortly after the Law Lecture Hall (1420 H Street, NW) was built in 1898 that records documenting the library space and the law librarians begin to surface.  The library in the Law Lecture Hall was the most commodious to date, and was reckoned “probably the most attractive feature of the whole building.” 34 The new posh library space inspired this effusive description:

In every appointment it is as complete as modern art could make it. The room is thirty by sixty feet; is lighted by six large windows and a central skylight by day, and by a large number of ceiling and side-bracket incandescent electric lights at night.  It is furnished with handsome, specially-designed oak tables, comfortable chairs, seating ninety students, with ample table space.  A spacious, open fireplace gives a cheerful, cozy appearance to the room, and handsome paintings adorn the walls.35

The Law Library in 1900 at the Law Lecture Hall, showing the skylight, incandescent ceiling lights, custom library  trestle table, and an elaborately-framed painting, as described in the Bulletin of March, 1905.

The Law Library in 1900 at the Law Lecture Hall, showing the skylight, incandescent ceiling lights, custom library trestle table, and an elaborately-framed painting, as described in 1904.

The increased size of the library and expansion of its collection justified library staffing to provide reference assistance.  The George Washington University Bulletin of March, 1905, includes these operational and collection details:

LAW LIBRARY AND READING-ROOM. A well-equipped working library, comprising 4,000 volumes, is open to the students in the Law Lecture Hall from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.  Competent librarians are in charge and will give students assistance in looking up subjects and in the use of books. The Library contains the standard text-books, the West Reporter system of Federal and State decisions complete, State reports, the English Common Law and Chancery Reports, Encyclopedias of Law, Digests, reference books, and current law publications. Adjoining the Library is a conversation-room for students, affording opportunity for consultation. In addition to these facilities, the students have free access to the Congressional Library and other public libraries.36

This description portrays a fully-functioning, adequately-stocked library, integral to law study at the University.  Its hours were probably generous by the standards of the day (only relatively recently have academic law libraries routinely stayed open past 10:00 p.m.), although it is not clear whether weekend hours figured in the equation.  Also of note is the statement that “Competent librarians are in charge and will give students assistance in looking up subjects and in the use of books” – which is a fair encapsulation of what law librarians do today.

Its respectable 4,000 volumes would have provided the basic resources necessary for law study, including the entire West Reporter system of Federal and State decisions.

This library space was more than just a room full of books: it was a comfortable, well-equipped study locus with the turn-of-the-century equivalent of librarians available to aid students with their research.  Its respectable 4,000 volumes would have provided the basic resources necessary for law study, including the entire West Reporter system of Federal and State decisions.  The West system recently had taken legal publishing by storm, quickly advancing from John West’s first publication of the Syllabi in 1876 to the debut of the American Digest System with its Key Number System in 1890.  West had revolutionized legal publishing and research, and in a very short time the West publications had become critical to law collections, including GW’s.  Still, reliance upon English precedent is evident from the priority of the English Common Law and Chancery Reports in the list, ranking ahead of encyclopedias, digests, and reference works.

Some collection comparisons.  GW’s collection of 4,000 volumes at the turn of the century did not rival the law collections of Harvard (60,000), Columbia (30,000), Yale (15,000), or the University of Pennsylvania (over 9,000),37 and it is easy to see why.  The establishment of these Ivy law schools predated GW Law’s second founding by many years (with eighteenth-century antecedents in the case of Columbia and Penn), and their collections reflected the fruits of decades of acquiring books.  This long history of collecting combined with solid financial backing benefited the collections of the Ivies, compared with GW’s relatively brief collecting initiative powered by uncertain funds. GW Law’s volume count more nearly matched that of the University of Virginia, which near the turn of the century hovered around “a few thousand volumes.”38

A consistent theme in GW’s earliest law library descriptive materials after its renaissance in 1865, and one that persisted into the early 1990s, is manifested in the advisory that “students have free access to the Congressional Library and other public libraries.”  Proximity to the Library of Congress and other major area libraries is clearly a benefit for any researcher; however, GW’s reliance on materials in other libraries historically tended to promote a restrictive attitude toward collection development which did not serve the Law Library well.  This approach was fueled by the unrelieved need to economize wherever possible.  When focused collection development, based upon continuing collection analysis and backed by enhanced funding, commenced in the 1990s, the Law Library began to fulfill its promise as an important research collection.

University library organization.  The University’s library organizational structure was outlined as follows in the 1905 Bulletin: “The University Library comprehends (1) the Library of the Department of Arts and Sciences, (2) the Law Library, and (3) the Medical Library. It is in charge of the Library Committee, composed of professors in the various departments who administer the expenditure of annual appropriation for the purchases of new books and look after the general interests of the Library.”39 Today the Law Library operates as part of the Law School rather than as a subunit of the University library.

The “competent librarians” documented in 1904-1905 included L.A. McGee, Milo P. Goodall, Homer A.A. Smith, and Professor William R. Vance of the GW Law School faculty. We do not have specific information about the duties of the first three, but Professor Vance, as a member of the Committee on the University Library (and its Secretary), would have performed functions including general oversight of the law library (versus day-to-day management), managing expenditure of the Library fund, and making recommendations for selection of books.  When Professor Vance became dean of the Law School in 1905, he relinquished his law librarian duties, and there is no faculty member recorded as having succeeded him as librarian.

Information about GW’s law librarians in the first quarter of the twentieth century is scarce.  As the result of a Congressional investigation into the University’s financial affairs in 1910, based on an unusual provision in the original Columbian College charter granting the Attorney General and Congress the right to review the College’s financial records and other information, details about law school faculty and staff were recorded in the Attorney General’s report.  Names of some librarians and the funds disbursed to them appear in the report (please see “Recorded Law Librarians” box, below). 40  Given the consistently short tenure of those recorded as having worked in the Law Library, it seems clear that at least some of the “librarians” were actually student assistants.

More rocky road.  By 1910, in the midst of financial difficulties, the University properties at 15th and H were sold, and the Law School with its library hiked over to rented space on the fifth and sixth floors of the Masonic Temple on New York Avenue, NW, where it remained for about ten years.  Despite persistent financial difficulties, in 1919 the Law Library’s collection continued its steady if modest growth, offering a collection of 7500 volumes, including approximately 800 standard textbooks and legal periodicals.41

This purchase was one the University was proud of and provided a fine locus for the Law School and its library.

Crowding became an issue, and to solve that problem, for $145,000 GW purchased the Baltic Hotel at 1435 K Street, NW, where the Department of Justice had been maintaining temporary quarters while waiting for its own new space across Vermont Avenue to be completed.  This purchase was one the University was proud of and provided a fine locus for the Law School and its library.  The building, among other amenties, offered four large lecture halls, four moot court rooms, the Law Library, and a “lounging room.”42  The George Washington University Bulletin in 1920 characterized the advantages of the acquisition:

The George Washington University announces the purchase of a high-class building for the Law School.  This property is located at 1435 K Street. It was for many years the home of the Department of Justice, until that Department moved into its new building, just across Vermont Avenue.  The property fronts on McPherson Square and is thus: one block from the University Club, and the Department of Justice; two blocks from the Cosmos Club, Shoreham Hotel, and the Arlington Building, now occupied by the War Risk Bureau; and four blocks from the White House.  It is within one block of the 14th Street car line and two blocks of the Connecticut Avenue line….43

At 1435 K Street: The Law Library, pictured circa 1920, was located on the second floor of the Old Justice Department Building.

At 1435 K Street: The Law Library, pictured circa 1920, was located on the second floor of the Old Justice Department Building. Note the trestle tables and bentwood chairs from the prior Law Lecture Hall library arrangement at 1420 H Street, NW.

The Centennial Celebration edition of the University catalogue noted that “Our Law Library, containing more than 8,000 volumes, is open and available to students each day from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and on Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m.  Our furniture, while plain, is in good repair and, in so far as utility is concerned, is of the most approved type.”44 Yet it was recognized that there was room for improvement: “While satisfactory progress has been made, a great deal remains to be done…our library should be increased….” 45

But although the handsome McPherson Square property enjoyed many advantages, the University had bought land in Foggy Bottom and intended to consolidate all its schools there eventually.  It was recognized that property values in the K Street area were escalating, and that the purchase of the Baltic Hotel had proved a sound investment.  The property was not, however, seriously considered as a permanent home for the Law School once plans for consolidating the schools of the University had gelled.  When the Law School building at McPherson Square was sold and the cornerstone for Stockton Hall was laid on December 12, 1924, the Law School and its Law Library had found their permanent home. In the meantime, the brisk turnover rate of those working at GW’s Law Library persisted.  That pattern was soon to change, with the arrival of Helen Catherine Newman.

Miss Helen Catherine Newman and the beginnings of a research collection.  Every major library deserves an exceptional leader, especially one who arrives at a critical moment in a library’s history.  GW Law was fortunate that one of its outstanding students, Helen Catherine Newman, decided to pursue a career in law librarianship.  Helen began her journey in the profession by working in the Law Library while she attended law school.  A native Washingtonian, Helen was an astute natural leader with an instinctive feel for libraries, a determined nature, and a thoroughgoing allegiance to GW Law.

Her long association with the Law Library began in 1923 when she assumed the assistant librarian position while attending law school.  She received her LL.B. with distinction in 1925, and went on for the LL.M., which she was awarded in 1927, the year she became director of the library.  She held that position until 1941, when she moved to the Supreme Court as assistant librarian before becoming Librarian of the Court in 1947.  She was active in GW life outside the Law Library, serving as Secretary of the Law School and a member of the Board of Trustees.  Helen received GW’s Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award in 1947.

Helen Newman’s many accomplishments in the law library profession – co-incorporator and president of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), co-founder and president of the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Law Library Journal, first woman to serve as Librarian of the U.S. Supreme Court – all of which contributed to her being named a “Pioneer” inductee into the AALL Hall of Fame in 2010, pale beside the importance of her contributions to GW’s Law Library.  Her genuine “service orientation” (a traditional index of excellence in librarianship) led her to expand library services to faculty and students, her analytical mind and keen organizational sense shone in the annual reports which she was the first GW Law Library director to compose for the University Librarian, and her scholarly bent and feel for history were put to use in recognizing that the mystery notebooks shelved under “C” were examples of manuscript student notes from the Litchfield Law School, and as such, were quite scarce and of significant historical value.  Moreover, she recognized that, as Professor William Thomas Carroll’s notes, they provided unparalleled insight into the first course of study at Columbian College’s Law Department in 1826.   With a combination of discernment, historical “feel,” and sleuthing, Helen Newman cast herself as the Law Library’s “first” rare books librarian.

Young Helen: a rare photograph of Helen Catherine Newman as a young librarian from the December 18, 1934, issue of The GW Hatchet.

Young Helen: a rare photograph of Helen Catherine Newman as a young librarian from the December 18, 1934, issue of The GW Hatchet.

Helen Newman made the best of a meager library budget to expand the collection, exchanging copies of the George Washington Law Review for law reviews not held by the Law Library, obtaining specialized materials from government sources, purchasing on the second-hand market, and soliciting gifts.  By 1934, the Law Library held complete sets of a majority of the most-cited periodicals, and subscribed to nearly all the law reviews appearing in the Index to Legal Periodicals.  She replaced the old library catalog with a new system using Library of Congress cards and adopting the general features of LC’s catalog.46  She explained this move to a new card catalogue by describing the uselessness of the system just replaced: the “old file was found to be wholly inadequate even as a nucleus of a new catalogue.  The cards did not accurately describe the books.  No cards were filed for approximately 2,000 books.”47  Undoubtedly this was but a shard of the sequellae of the years of inconsistent library stewardship that Helen encountered at the Law Library.

Despite Helen’s deft handling of the modest library budget, she was unable to cover all the bases.  During the Association of American Law Schools inspection of the Law Library in 1937, the inspector noted that, although the legal periodical collection was unusually good for a library of GW’s size, the state statute collection was deficient.  Helen explained that due to lack of funds, the Law Library had been unable to purchase the updates of state statutes issued since 1932.48

It appears that Helen ran the Law Library without the help of an assistant librarian, instead relying on student assistants, who handled circulation, shelving, and some check-in duties.  She herself selected, ordered, and catalogued the books, kept the accounts and approved invoices, performed bindery preparation, conducted reference and research, effected exchanges of duplicates, handled gifts, and managed public relations. 49

As Professor Hugh Bernard later noted, “our Law Library is in many respects the lengthened shadow of one woman – Helen Catherine Newman.”

Helen Newman’s professional approach, backed by her legal training, introduced a level of librarianship superior to what the Law Library had experienced before her arrival, and it set the stage for building a library that could adequately support the scholarship of the Law School’s future faculty and students.  By attending to the basics of library organization and collection development, she left a modern library, prepared to grow with the Law School, when she departed for the Supreme Court in 1941.

As Professor Hugh Bernard later noted, “our Law Library is in many respects the lengthened shadow of one woman – Helen Catherine Newman.” 50

Bridges to the present: Hugh Y. Bernard, “collection builder.”  A period of instability as evidenced by a series of interim librarians followed Helen Newman’s departure, until the arrival of another GW Law graduate (and practicing attorney), Ella Cooper Thomas, as Law Librarian in 1946.  More interim direction followed in 1952 before Miss Bertha Rothe became the Law Librarian in 1953.  Miss Rothe was the first librarian with both professional law and library training, and she was active in both AALL and LLSDC.  The years following Helen Newman’s tenure were marked by steady growth of the collection, with a post-merger jump after the absorption in 1958 of the National University collection.

Hugh Y. Bernard succeeded Bertha Rothe in 1960.  Like Miss Rothe, Hugh had both law and library training, and became the first full-time library director to be awarded faculty status.  Hugh’s period as director was characterized by a desire to improve the Law Library on all fronts, and he was especially effective in improving the collection.  He, too, was plagued by a skimpy budget and inadequate staffing, and was outspoken in his quest for more money for the Law Library, especially to improve the numbers of dollars-per-student spent on books.

Hugh’s focus on the collection resulted in healthy growth and addition of materials that enriched what was formerly a solid if not very colorful law collection.  In the spring of 1969, approximately 1750 more books from the former library of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, purchased by the University in the early 1950s, were transferred from the University library to the Law Library, a transfer that had begun in 1967.  The international law collection was thriving, with all printed United Nations publications in English since its founding, plus the League of Nations and U.N. Treaty Series, and reports of the Permanent Court of International Justice and International Court of Justice.  During this time, Hugh assembled a rare book collection of several dozen titles, including early editions of Grotius, Pufendorf, Rachel, Bijnkershoek, and other classical writers on international law.

When Hugh arrived in 1960, the Law Library’s collection hovered around 54,000 volumes.  In 1969, the collection passed the 100,000-volume mark. As he noted in his 1968-1969 Annual Report, this was a conservative number, since it did not include microforms or the totality of the Carnegie Endowment materials.  If these had been included in the volume count, Hugh estimated that the number would be closer to 170,000 volumes. Justly proud of the progress made by the Law Library in augmenting its collections, Hugh stated in his Report that the “Law Library now possesses one of the truly significant law collections in the entire Middle Atlantic area.  Always rich in treatises and monographs, it has in recent years seen its holdings grow remarkably in primary source materials, documents, foreign and international law, digests, citators and search tools, as well as in the basic texts and reference materials used most by the J.D. law students.”51  Hugh identified closely with his role in collection development, and characterized himself in one of his library newsletters as “collection builder.”52

Hugh also recognized that the Law Library historically had been building a research collection that today we would call “interdisciplinary.”

Hugh’s dedication to GW Law sometimes lured him to plain-spokenness in defense of his home institution, as here in his assessment of the collection of GW’s traditional local rival, Georgetown Law:  “‘Georgetown’s library material is inferior to ours.  The books are not as well selected.  We take at least as many if not more legal periodicals than Georgetown.   Georgetown is, as they say, “playing catch-up ball.” They were substantially behind us until about five years ago.’”53

Hugh’s legacy rides mainly on two things: a major project he spearheaded, and an astute observation regarding the Law Library’s collecting tradition.  The project was one he tackled in his retirement, authoring a history of the Law School.  In his library cubicle he pored over reams of primary GW source materials, ultimately producing a body of research spanning the years 1865-1984.  Although the project did not reach fruition, the Hugh Bernard Papers housed at the Special Collections Research Center at the Gelman Library provide researchers with an abundance of insights into the history of GW Law and the Law Library.  Hugh’s papers constitute a unique gift to posterity.

Hugh also recognized that the Law Library historically had been building a research collection that today we would call “interdisciplinary.” Hugh says it best:

The George Washington University Law Library has never considered itself as limited in acquisition policy to merely traditional “law materials”, but has not hesitated to acquire, to the extent the budget and the desires of its clientele would allow, the significant works in political science, government, history, biography, economics, finance, business, public affairs, diplomacy and international relations, sociology, criminology, medical jurisprudence, technology, and other disciplines that impinge in ever greater degree on the legal profession. No library of its size and financial resources has a better treatise and monograph collection. 54

This liberal approach to building a collection, with an eye to how other disciplines relate to the law, laid a solid foundation for the development of today’s Special Collections.  Hugh’s recognition of the Law Library’s tradition of broad-minded selection practices allowed him to understand how best to work at crafting a law collection of sophistication and distinction.


Cover of Decretales of Gregory IX (1475)

One of the Law Library’s treasures: the commanding contemporary binding of an illuminated incunable printing of the Decretales of Gregory IX (1475), in leather with blind tooling and engraved brass fittings.

From the Decretales: a miniature depicting a marriage ceremony.

From the Decretales: a miniature depicting a marriage ceremony, attributed to the Austrian master Ulrich Schreier.

The collection-building efforts of law librarians earlier in the twentieth century smoothed the path for the Law Library to develop its Special Collections beginning in 2001, which holds important works such as this incunable printing of the Decretales of Gregory IX (1475).


Collections and Special Collections at the Law Library today.  Is the past prologue?  Perhaps.  Certainly the vigorous efforts of two librarians to build and enrich the collection with the resources at hand set a course for their successors.  Although a library’s collection is not its only constituent, it is the most important, and the standard by which libraries typically are judged.  In 2015, the Law Library’s volume count, including volume equivalents in microform, stood at 711,699.  However, volume count alone tells but part of the story.  The number of discrete pieces (volumes) held gives an idea of a collection’s sheer mass, but the number of titles held speaks more directly to that collection’s intellectual depth and scope.  Titles held by the Law Library in 2015 in all formats – hard copy, microform, and online – totaled 1,523,531, up from 114,702 in the year 2000, which comprised hard copy and microform.

A law library which ventures beyond the collection parameters set to serve the quotidian needs of the student, professor, and lawyer into the province of legal history and rare legal works has demonstrated a willingness to undertake an ambitious mission: to discover and demonstrate where “the law” comes from, how it evolved and how it relates to current law, to provide a repository for important antiquarian works that could disappear, and to share all of this with its own community and the scholarly community at large.  The contributions of rare and historical law works and the institutions that hold them are inseparable from the law as it is recorded today.

Although the Special Collections that the Law Library has been building since 2001 may appear to be a deviation from its past initiatives and “culture,” it also can be contemplated as part of the natural development of this library’s collection.  More than 36,000 rare books, incunabula, and manuscripts now are part of Special Collections, with the French Collection comprising approximately 15,000 volumes.  Were it not for clear-sighted librarians such as Helen Newman, who soldiered on to build a working law collection, and Hugh Bernard, who built upon Helen’s work by augmenting, diversifying, and adding sophistication to the collection, the path to Special Collections may have been far longer, with many fewer signposts. B

GW Law Library reading room

A corner of one of the second floor Law Library reading rooms as it appears today.

With special thanks to Gelman Library’s Special Collections Research Center, especially Shelly Buring and Leah Richardson, for providing access to archival research sources for this article.

For a recent history of GW Law, please see Dean Jerome A. Barron’s A Short History of The George Washington University Law School, published by The George Washington Law Review (2016).  Dean Barron’s history is especially valuable for its emphasis on GW Law in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and for its insights by a former dean and faculty member who has played an essential role in the GW community for decades.





  1. Luther Rice to the Reverend Obadiah Brown, 5 October 1821, Luther Rice Papers, Box 1, Folder 2, Outgoing correspondence 1821-1825, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, The George Washington University.
  2. Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 3 February 1826, RG0001 Series 1, Volume 1, Box 7, Folder 1.  Records of the Board of Trustees, 1821-2003. University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Gelman Library, The George Washington University, Washington, DC.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Transcription, Columbian Star, 11 February 1826, “Law Department – Columbian College,” Page 3, Column 5. MS0887, Box 1, Folder 5. Lowell Joseph Ragatz papers, 1821-1872. University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Gelman Library, The George Washington University, Washington, DC.
  5. “Our History,” The Christian Index, http://christianindex.org/our-history/ (accessed August 2, 2016).
  6. Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 24 February 1826.  For the full text of the Cranch-Carroll “By-laws and Regulations” as they appeared in the 1826 minutes of the Board of Trustees,  see “How to Start a Law School in 1826″ in the shaded box.
  7. “Article XI. History of the Columbian College, District of Columbia,” The Christian Review 2 (March, 1837): 124.
  8. Elmer Louis Kayser, Bricks Without Straw: The Evolution of George Washington University (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970), 73.
  9. Luther Rice to the Reverend Obadiah Brown, 5 October 1821, Luther Rice Papers, Box 1, Folder 2.
  10. Daily National Intelligencer, June 13, 1826, p. 3, col. 2, quoted in Helen Newman, “William Cranch, Judge, Law School Professor, and Reporter,” Law Library Journal 26 (1933): 87, note 78.
  11. William Cranch and William Thomas Carroll, Prospectus.  The Law Department of the Columbian College, in the District of Columbia (Washington City: [publisher not identified], 1826), 1.
  12. Ibid., 2-3.
  13. Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 24 February 1826.
  14. Prospectus, 2.
  15. Bricks Without Straw, 46.
  16. Ibid., 35.
  17. Printed document entitled “Columbian College in the District of Columbia” (1825), Luther Rice Papers, Box 1, Folder 1.
  18. [William Elliot], The Washington Guide (City of Washington: S.A. Elliot, 1826), 106.
  19. Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 24 February 1826.
  20. Prospectus, 1.
  21. Ibid., 2.
  22. Newman,”Cranch,” 86, note 77.  Former GW Law Librarian Helen Newman postulates that the nine volumes labeled “Mr. Carroll’s Law Lectures” were manuscript drafts written up from his shorthand Litchfield notes, and were the notes used by Carroll in his lectures.
  23. Annual and Historical Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the Columbian College, D.C. 1868 (Washington City: R.A. Waters, Printer, 1868), 34-35.
  24. Res Gestae ([Washington, D.C.]: [publisher not identified], 1915), 16.
  25. 1868 Catalogue, 35.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. George A. King, “The Law School Forty-Five Years Ago,” Res Gestae, 13.
  30. Ibid., 12, 13.
  31. Ibid., 13.
  32. 1868 Catalogue, 36.
  33. Hugh Y. Bernard, “The Lengthened Shadow: Notes Toward a History of the George Washington University Law Library (unpublished typescript essay 197?), 6.
  34. The Columbian University, Law Lecture Hall (Washington, D.C.: Judd & Detweiler, 1904) https://archive.org/details/lawlecturehall00geor
  35. Ibid.
  36. The George Washington University Bulletin, Vol. IV, no. 1 (Part 2)(March 1905), 170.
  37. William Hamilton Bryson, Virginia Law Books: Essays and Bibliographies, Vol. 239 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2000), 406, note 33.
  38. Ibid., 406.
  39. Bulletin, Vol. IV, no. 1 (Part 2), 19.
  40. Bricks Without Straw, 32, 207-209; U. S. House of Representatives, Preliminary Report of the Financial Condition of George Washington University, 61st Cong., H. Doc. 1060 (December 7, 1910).
  41. Bulletin, Vol. XVIII, no. 2 (June 1919), 211.
  42. Ibid., Vol. XX, no. 1 (March, 1921), 86-87.
  43. Ibid., Vol. XIX, no. 2 (May 1920), 11.
  44. Ibid., Vol. XX, no. 1 (March 1921), 84.
  45. Ibid., 86.
  46. Helen Newman, Annual Report, Law Library, The George Washington University (1931), 1.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Newman, Annual Report (1937), 1.
  49. Newman, Annual Report (1941), 2.
  50. Bernard, “The Lengthened Shadow,” 9.
  51. Hugh Y. Bernard, Annual Report, Law Library, The George Washington University (1969), 1.
  52. [Hugh Y. Bernard], “Who Is Who And Who Does What In The Law Library,” Law Library Newsletter, The George Washington University, National Law Center, Vol. 2, no.1 (December 1, 1971), 3.
  53. James Bellis, “Law Librarian Raps Low Budget, Staff Size,” Interview with Hugh Bernard [The Advocate?] (November 11, 1977).
  54. Bernard, Annual Report, 2.
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