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Revamped library bridges law's past and present

Rare books in Special Collections Room bring law to life for students
April 18, 2017
Books on display in the new Special Collections Room in the Bennett Jones Law Library. Photos by Ali Abel, Faculty of Law

Books on display in the new Special Collections Room in the Bennett Jones Law Library. Photos by Ali Abel, Faculty of Law

The Special Collections Room in the Bennett Jones Law Library is full of natural light, comfortable seating, and is a great study space for law students.

Books on display.

The Special Collections Room in the Bennett Jones Law Library is full of natural light, comfortable seating, and is a great study space for law students.

When you walk into the new Special Collections Room in the Bennett Jones Law Library, the first thing you see is the natural light, a big table and some comfy chairs — the perfect place to study for any busy law student. As you walk around the room, you begin to notice the books — large tomes with leather spines and gold lettering, behind glass doors, locked for protection. It is an impressive space for any visitor.

“The Ernest S. Watkins Rare Book Collection contains historical legal materials, primarily from the United Kingdom and Canada,” says Kim Clarke, head librarian in the Bennett Jones Law Library. “The British materials were mainly published before 1850, and the Canadian materials before 1900. We have some unique items, such as a book of legal exhibits from the 1954 Supreme Court of Canada case of CPR v Turta, which continues to be taught in Property Law. Professors often take the book to class when discussing the case as a way to bring the facts to life for first-year law students.”

Previous space hidden and unused

The space that previously held the rare book collection was smaller, with no windows, behind a locked door. In fact, most people never even knew the collection and the room existed. By creating the new space, students are reminded on a daily basis that current law is built upon a historical legal foundation. Many of the books have leather spines that get discoloured from the oils on our fingers, and can become brittle and break when a book is pulled off the shelf. With ordinary use, the edges of the pages become brittle and can chip off. As a result, the books need to be kept in locked bookcases, but are still in plain sight for curious visitors.

While many of the books date back as early as the mid-1800s, the oldest book in the collection dates to the late 1500s.

“We have several 16th-century legal books in our collection, but the oldest is from 1576 — La Graunde Abridgement by Sir Robert Brooke,” says Clarke. “The two-volume set contains references to more than 20,000 cases, statutes and other legal materials, arranged in a topical manner and with marginal notes to help researchers find relevant materials. Coincidentally, it was one of the first legal research resources created … apt for a library!”

Clarke goes on to point out that the Special Collections Room also houses copies of the Faculty of Law’s graduate theses and current course reserve books.

“The space, essentially, bridges law’s past with its present.”

Numerous special collections across campus

Overall, Libraries and Cultural Resources (LCR) houses a number of collections of rare books that enhance research, teaching and learning. Notable examples are the Mackie Family History of Neuroscience Collection at the Health Sciences Library, the Chicksands Collection of Military History at the University of Calgary’s Library and Archives at The Military Museums. The primary rare book collection is housed in Archives and Special Collections in the Taylor Family Digital Library, including medieval texts such as the Polychronicon — one of the first books ever printed in English — and various pop culture collections of first-edition paperbacks, comics and science fiction novels.