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Judging books by their covers: Boston College Law School Library shows rare treasures

Marbled binding
Marbled binding
Boston College Law Library

Before they had Blackberries and iPhones, lawyers had books.  Rare legal tomes from the 1400s to the twentieth century are on show through May at the Daniel R. Coquillette Rare Book Room at Boston College Law School Library. 

Books and their Covers: Decorative Bindings, Beautiful Books, is a must-see for anyone intrigued by the arts of book-making and book-binding. "One often thinks of law books in utilitarian terms, but this exhibit proves they can be objects of delight and desire as well," said Karen Beck, Curator of Rare Books, and the exhibition's organizer.

Beck has grouped books from different periods by binding materials, so that a hefty vellum-bound copy of the famous Roman law text Corpus Iuris Civilis, printed in Geneva in 1602, shares a case with a slender, soft vellum-bound edition of Thomas More's Utopia, published in 1893 by William Morris's famous Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith, London. 

Two cases feature books bound in colorful marbled papers, made by laying sheets of blank paper on colored dyes floated on a liquid surface, and used in bookbinding since the sixteenth century. Other volumes show the many ways calf-skin could be treated with chemicals to give speckled and mottled effects. 

Several books show evidence of hard wear or intense study. The front and back covers of a battered guide to the law for justices of the peace, Conductor Generalis: Or, the Office, Duty and Authority of Justices of the Peace, printed in New York in 1788, have been re-attached to the spine with coarse whipstitching - romantically described by the book dealer who sold it to donor Kitty Preyer as "frontier binding." 

One of the most unusual volumes in the collection is a 1640 edition of Henry de Bracton's De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae (The Laws and Customs of England). The two-volume work is bound only in rough boards, just as it came from the printer, with blank sheets bound between the printed pages giving space for the owner's copious manuscript annotations. "I'd love a copy of Finnegan's Wake bound like that," said BC graduate student and book conservation intern  Andrew Kuhn. 


  • Lynette Benton 5 years ago

    It's wonderful to learn about these little known collections. It's especially nice to have someone else digging them up for the rest of us. And who would have thought law books, of all things, would be decorative. Thanks for this!

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