Exhibition Explores Readers’ Marks in Law Books

Books are the lawyer’s tools and the law student’s laboratory, and nothing brings this home better than the marks that they leave in their books. Over 30 such annotated and inscribed books from the Lillian Goldman Law Library are on display in “Precedents So Scrawl’d and Blurr’d: Readers’ Marks in Law Books,” the Spring 2020 exhibition from the Library’s Rare Book Collection.

Originally on display in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery of the Library, an online version of the exhibition was prepared as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Exhibition curator Mike Widener, the Law Library’s rare book librarian, selected items that offer both research potential and insights into the roles that law books have played in people’s lives. The marks left by readers document the lived experience of the law, and remind us that law is above all a human endeavor.

The exhibition’s title comes from John Anstey’s verse satire of the legal profession, “The Pleader’s Guide” (1796): “Precedents so scrawl’d and blurr’d / I scarce could read one single word.”

Many of the volumes illustrate the work of lawyers, law students, law professors, and authors throughout the centuries. Doodles suggest the writers taking a break from dreary legal studies. Scraps of poetry can be sources for literary scholars. Readers also used their books to record events, ranging from a drunken outburst in the New Jersey assembly to a famous naval battle of the War of 1812 and the beheading of Henry VIII’s fifth queen.

Other highlights of the exhibition include three Yale Law School professors from the past who are represented in the exhibition: Samuel Hitchcock, Simeon Baldwin, and Arthur Corbin. And an anonymous Law School student used several colored highlighters, in addition to written notes, in a copy of The Torts Process, a casebook coauthored by Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law Doug Kysar.

“These books represent a small fraction of the annotated books in the Yale Law Library’s rare book collection,” said Widener. “They demonstrate the value of collecting these artifacts, and constitute the Law Library’s invitation to explore them further.”