Amid legal scholarship, some wacky stacks

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There’s no denying that tax codes are boring, as even Mike Widener, the Lillian Goldman Law Library’s rare book librarian, will admit.

But this is no ordinary tax code: The thick tome is dotted with lively, humorous illustrations of tax men harassing citizens, squeezing every last penny out of them with a steamroller and stripping the clothes off their backs. The drawings are a throwback to 1944, when they were published by French illustrator Joseph Hemard alongside an actual, unchanged tax code.

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Widener found this book amid medieval statutes and legal commentaries in a storage area behind the Paskus-Danziger Rare Book Room of the Law Library. In fact, since he took his post at the Law Library in 2006, Widener has placed an emphasis on collecting pieces that represent the artful side of law, he said. Today, this collection includes illustrated law books, like the French tax code, and about 200 children’s books, 70 comic books and, as of this year, a dozen bobblehead dolls depicting Supreme Court justices and former Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh.

While these items may seem out of place in the seemingly staid atmosphere of a law school, librarian Blair Kauffman said they are part of the expanding study of legal iconography and the role of lawyers in popular culture — a field that has developed recently, Kauffman said, and that makes Yale Law School unique.

BOBBLEHEADS AND BEYOND

At the Goldman Library, nearly anything goes — anything related to law, that is. An advertisement for Gordon’s Gin, for instance, found its way into the Rare Book Room for making a reference to Sir William Blackstone, a famous 18th century critic of British law. Though DVDs of “Law & Order” are a given, the Library also stocks full seasons of “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.”

“It’s a broad philosophy of collecting,” said associate librarian Fred Shapiro.

And in the past few months, the collection has only become broader. The satirical legal magazine “The Green Bag” has been producing bobbleheads of Supreme Court Justices for a decade, but upon Widener’s suggestion in November 2009, the magazine chose the Law Library as the official repository for all its bobbleheads. For Widener and the Rare Books Room, this was a boon. These bobbleheads, he said, can often be difficult to track down and expensive once located, as Green Bag produces at most a few thousand of each. At auction, the bobbleheads can sell for thousands, Shapiro said.

The Green Bag began producing the “Supreme Court sluggers,” a line of baseball cards featuring Supreme Court justices, in 2009. The first in the series depicts Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

“It’s very generous of them,” Shapiro said of Green Bag’s choice to give Yale the bobbleheads. “I hope that we’ll be the repository of the baseball cards too.”

The bobblehead exhibit went on display March 8 and will remain up through the end of the summer. It will be replaced in the fall by an exhibit featuring the lawyer in comic books, to be curated by Mark Zaid, an attorney specializing in national security law, Widener said.

One was produced by Duke University School of Law to explain intellectual property law, carrying the tagline, “by day a filmmaker … by night she fought for fair use!” Another, a series titled “Wolff and Byrd: Counselors for the Macabre,” spins the tale of two attorneys who represent the “creatures of the night.”

In October 2008, former law librarian and professor emeritus Morris L. Cohen donated a collection of more than 200 law-related children’s books, now known as the Morris L. Cohen Juvenile Jurisprudence Collection. One such book is “Finding Susie,” a partially autobiographical story by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor about a third-grade girl named Sandra who learns to let wild animals live in the wild and in the process finds a pet of her own.

Though Widener said he was initially dubious that a collection of children’s books related to law could be gathered, he said he was very impressed with Cohen’s work.

“It just shows what a collector can do with imagination,” Widener said.

‘RICH CULTURAL HERITAGE’

Historically the home of eccentric, or “funky,” figures who lived fascinating lives, the Yale Law School has always been intrigued by the cultural aspect of law, Shapiro said. But scholarly interest in study of the legal iconography, Kauffman said, has grown in recent years.

In 2001, along with the Law Library’s U.S. history specialist Bonnie Collier, Kauffman published a coffee table book titled “Law in America” that draws heavily on images of law from the law school library and is the first and only legal book sold by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2009, Sterling Professor John H. Langbein published “History of the Common Law: The Development of Anglo-American Legal Institutions,” which Kauffman said contains the most images of any existing legal book.

And later this year, professors Judith Resnik and Dennis E. Curtis LAW ’66 will publish “Representing Justice: From Nascent City-States to Democratic Courtrooms and Guantanamo Bay,” which Kauffman said he believes to be the first legal book to chronicle the development of justices’ image over time. Resnik and Curtis will also teach a course next spring on the same topic.

The bobbleheads might seem “frivolous,” Shapiro said, but they fit in with the work on iconography of law, such as the book written by Resnik and Curtis.

And the collection’s colorful pieces can draw in people who may not otherwise be attracted to a law library, Kauffman said, adding that visual representations of law can encourage further study.

“It advertises everything else,” Kauffman said. “It immediately catches one’s eye. They don’t have to be able to read Latin or Ancient Greek or law French. Anyone can recognize the image and from there take a broader interest in the scholarship that’s behind it.”

Indeed, Shapiro said such images help to remind people that the law defies the stereotype of suits and wigs. Legal shows, he pointed out, are among the most popular programs on television.

“The general public thinks of law as this incredibly dry field, but historically law has a very rich cultural heritage,” Shapiro said. “All the drama of human life shows up in legal literature. Crime, sex, our struggles: They all end up in the courtroom.”

The Law Library contains more than 900,000 volumes; the Rare Book Room has about 50,000.

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