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The Birth of the Law Library

Q. Just saw the drawings for the new law library. Very cool. Got me thinking about the first law library, the one that’s now Durant Hall. How did Boalt’s library get started?

Sather Plate

A. The first law library on campus wasn’t in the Beaux Arts beauty that is now called Durant Hall (the original Boalt Hall).  Berkeley’s first law library was housed in somewhat humbler quarters.   

When the Dept. of Jurisprudence was founded in 1882, the chairman of the department, William Carey Jones, realized that the program needed a law library to support faculty and student research.  The Dept. of Jurisprudence operated out of one classroom and one office in North Hall, so space for a library collection needed to be found elsewhere.

The most logical place was somewhere in the Bacon Art and Library Building, which once stood on the current site of Birge Hall, near the Campanile.  An 1886 guidebook describes Bacon Hall as “commodious, convenient, well-ventilated, flooded in every cozy corner with abounding light....”  Unfortunately, there was no cozy corner that could be set aside for a law library.  Searching high and low, Jones discovered that the basement was being under-utilized: it was at the time the wine cellar for the University.  Out went the bottles and in went the law books.  (Ours is surely the only law library in America that started out in a wine cellar.)

Law reports and digests were purchased with funds donated by alumni and by the Bancroft-Whitney Company, but there was no money to hire a law librarian to oversee the collection, so some of the more valuable books were chained to the desks for safekeeping.  (A medieval practice that our current librarians have been tempted from time to time to revive.)  Law students were not the only potential vandals.  The same 1886 guidebook describes the Bacon Hall reading room as “the Purgatorio of books, where the eager [undergraduate] student grasps his chosen volume and proceeds intellectually to tear its vitals out and dismember it (sometimes in more senses that one, unfortunately).” 

In 1900 Mrs. Jane K. Sather (of Gate and Tower fame) donated $10,000 for the “perpetual support of a law library at the University of California by way of the purchase of law books and publications.”  In acknowledgment of her generosity, the collection was dubbed the Sather Law Library — a name that unfortunately did not survive the transfer to the new (old) Boalt Hall.  But perhaps we can still boast that we once had the first law library in America named after a woman.

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