Morris L. Cohen, renowned librarian and professor at Yale Law School, died Dec. 18 at his home in New Haven. He was 83.
Cohen was Professor Emeritus of Law and a lecturer at the Law School since 1991, but was best known for his work as the Law School librarian from 1981 to 1991. His contributions to the field of legal scholarship include his six-volume bibliography of early American law, the collection of rare, law-related children’s books that he donated to the law school in 2009, and the Yale Law School library’s extensive online catalog, which is named MORRIS in his honor. His wife, Gloria, told the New York Times that he died of leukemia.
“Morris was admired throughout the entire community of legal education,” Yale Law School Dean Robert Post LAW ’77 said in an obituary published on the Law School website. “We share with many others a great loss to the world of legal scholarship. We will miss his humor, his kindness, his gentle wisdom, and his fascination with books and research.”
Cohen was responsible for expanding the special collections and online catalogue of the Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library, and installing the first computers in the Harvard Law School Library. He also directed the law libraries at the University of Pennsylvania and SUNY-Buffalo. In his obituary, the New York Times hailed Cohen as “one of the nation’s most influential legal librarians.”
A graduate of the University of Chicago in 1947 and Columbia Law School in 1951, Cohen published extensively on legal history. His six-volume “Bibliography of Early American Law” catalogues all law books published in the U.S. before 1860. Fred Shapiro, law school lecturer and associate librarian, said that while writing his bibliography, Cohen travelled to libraries across the country to find and study the original books he cited in his work.
“Nowadays, people are becoming used to looking up books online through Google Books, but Morris believed you actually had to look at the physical book,” he said. “There are many things Google gets wrong in digitizing old books … there is a higher standard of scholarship Morris was upholding.”
Cohen’s other books include “The Bench and Bar: Great Caricatures from Vanity Fair …” and “A Guide to the Early Reports of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
In 2009, Cohen donated his “Juvenile Jurisprudence Collection” to the Yale Law Library. He had been assembling the trove of children’s books about law and justice since around 1960 with the help of his son Daniel, who was six years old when the project began. Michael Widener, Rare Book Librarian at the Law Library, said at the time that he “[did not] know of any other collection like it anywhere.”
Cohen was also a prominent member of the Law School community. Shapiro said Cohen was “very personable,” and would often sit with students for hours to talk about their lives or legal ambitions.
“[Cohen’s] father had a factory in Brooklyn and believed in walking around the factory every day to talk to each of his employees,” he said. “Like his father, [Cohen] was a people-oriented person in addition to being a book-oriented person.”
Shapiro added that Cohen continued to come to his office every day even after his retirement, showing a unique dedication to the study of law.
“He was representative of a breed that is not as common nowadays: the scholar-librarian,” he said. “He was an administrator, but his heart was not in administration as much as it was in being a bibliographer, historian, a student of books.”
Cohen is survived by his wife Gloria, his son Daniel, his daughter Havi Hoffman, and his granddaughter Rachel Hoffman.
His funeral was held Dec. 20 at the Robert E. Schure Funeral Home in New Haven.