Campus & Community

HLS gets rare book collection that spans 400 years

2 min read

Harvard Law School announced today that its library – the largest law library in the world – has received its most significant gift in more than 150 years, a major collection of rare English law books spanning 400 years of legal writing from 1491 to 1891.

The books, which total more than 1,000 volumes, are a gift of the late Henry N. Ess III and include a treatise known as Abridgements of the Statutes, which some scholars believe is the first legal book ever printed in England.

“I can think of no better home for the largest private collection of early English law books than the Harvard Law library in Langdell Hall,” said Robert C. Clark, Dean of the Law School. “Students, faculty, and legal scholars from around the globe will have access to the very foundations of Anglo-American law and even the development of modern society.”

Among the more notable volumes in the Ess collection are first editions of John Locke’s “Essay on Human Understanding” and Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” two cornerstones of modern political thought. The collection also includes a first edition of Blackstone’s “Commentaries,” considered the most thorough treatment of English law ever produced by one person.

Combined with existing volumes in the Harvard Law library, the new additions help constitute the largest collection of early English law books in the world. “No library in England, or anywhere else in the world, begins to approach the strength of the Harvard Law School library in Anglo-American legal history,” said Dan Coquillette, a noted legal historian and visiting faculty member at Harvard Law School.

A 1944 graduate of Harvard Law School, Ess was a partner at the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell and a distinguished member of the community. He was a patron of the literary arts, and served as a longtime board member of the Vincent Astor Foundation, an organization that provides funding for large cultural institutions as well as groups that help the underprivileged.

To celebrate the arrival of the Ess gift, a reception and dinner are scheduled for tonight (April 26) on the Harvard Law School campus.

Guests will include legal historians, scholars, librarians, and other members of the Harvard Law community.