Citizen Historians Wanted: Help The UVA Law Library Transcribe Historical Legal Manuscripts

In the early 1820s, a young Harvard College graduate named Jared Sparks devised a plan to preserve the early history of the United States.  Like many Americans, Sparks sensed the closing of an age. Nearly fifty years had passed since the Declaration of Independence and many of the American Revolution’s central figures were dead or soon would be. George Washington took his last breath in December 1799 at Mount Vernon, six months after Patrick Henry succumbed to stomach cancer. In the 1820s, Thomas Jefferson remained busy overseeing the creation of the University of Virginia from his home at Monticello. From there he also maintained a lively correspondence with his friend and former adversary, John Adams, who spent his remaining years at home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Yet they would soon be dead, too. 

One August day in 1823, Sparks determined to preserve the nation’s past as he meditated “on the importance of having a new History of America.” He recognized this difficult task would require him to “go to the fountain and read everything on the subject.” That meant finding original documents. Like his contemporary and fellow historian Peter Force, Sparks set out to find and transcribe copies of correspondence, reports, and a host of other material in private homes, court houses, and libraries across the nation and in Europe. He became a prolific documentary editor. Over the next thirty years he published numerous volumes, including The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (12 vols.), Life of Gouverneur Morris (3 vols.), and The Works of Benjamin Franklin (10 vols.). His twelve volume edition of George Washington’s writings was his most significant achievement and served as a forerunner of the current Papers of George Washington Project at UVA.1 

Sparks was a citizen historian long before the development of the modern historical profession in the late nineteenth century. His efforts to collect, transcribe, and arrange manuscripts into publishable form broadened what his fellow Americans could know about their own history.  In the nineteenth century that required traveling by horse or ship to archives in a quest for manuscripts. Today, professional historians and documentary editors use slightly faster modes of transportation to reach libraries and archives, but digital technology has also allowed us to bring the archive to the scholar and public. For example, you can now read George III’s thoughts on kingship in his own hand from the comfort of your office or explore a vast array of American women’s experiences in their own voices with students in your classroom.

Technology has also made the creation of historical knowledge participatory on a grand scale. Crowdsourcing transcriptions of manuscript collections has become an important way for professional librarians and scholars at institutions and projects large and small to work with people interested in the past. Manuscripts and rare books can languish in archival boxes unseen for years, keeping the stories they tell unintentionally hidden. Digitizing the documents and asking for the public’s help to transcribe them is a means to unlock their potential for future research and a form of civic engagement with our history. 

The UVA Law Library Special Collection is delighted to announce that we have partnered with FromthePage.com to make some of our manuscripts available for public transcription. Inspired by our friends in The Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio at the University of Iowa Library and initiatives such as the Colored Conventions Project, we seek the help of citizen historians to tell the stories of the women and men who appear in our collections.

The law touches everyone in some way. That was as true in the past as it is today. The legal documents that we present on FromthePage.com capture how people in the United States, England, Scotland, and Italy lived and died. Their presence in a petition to a court, in a letter seeking favors from a government official, a catalog of their private property in a probate record, or in a lecture before eager young law students reveal much about them and the legal culture in which they lived. 

What we hope to accomplish: As Jared Sparks knew the publication of transcribed manuscripts democratized historical knowledge and made it possible for amateur and professional historians alike to write better histories. We have the same goal in mind. Producing transcriptions of the Law Library’s legal manuscripts can make the material more accessible and encourage new research. It will also enable the Special Collections librarians to create better finding aides that will make research and discovery more efficient. Using a combination of technology and interpretation, the librarians will identify subjects, key themes, and relationships that can increase a collection’s usability.  Importantly, we would like teachers to use this tool and our material in the classroom to help their students understand the complexity of the past.

How can you help: Participating is easy.  Follow these simple steps:

1. Go to FromthePage.com and create a free username and password.

2. One you are logged in, take a moment to read the “Transcription Instructions” in the Frequently asked Questions. Then go to “Collections” and look for those collections owned by “UVA School of Law Library.” Click on a collection that interests you.  (More on our available collections below).

3. In your chosen collection, review the “About” section to get a sense of the documents inside. Then investigate the “Works.” Think of “Works” like a folder of documents in a box. Select the one you want.

4. One you are inside a Work, select a document page or several to read through first before transcribing. It is important to gain a sense of an author’s handwriting and language. This will help you better understand an author’s thoughts and objectives, stylistic choices, and common trends across items. It helps, too, to read through another transcriber’s work (if available) to prepare your brain for the content you will see on the manuscript page. Previous transcriptions are important reference tools for each untranscribed page. 

Now you are ready to transcribe. Find a page to work on and click on “help transcribe this page.”

5. You will then be in transcription mode. You can adjust the position of the document to your likening. Be sure to look at the “Transcription Conventions” below the white transcription field to find information on how we would like you to transcribe the document.

6. Start to transcribe and be sure to save your work frequently. 

7. Know something about the people in one of the documents? Please feel free to put a note in the “Note” field at the bottom of the screen. The more we understand about these documents the better stories we can tell about the people in them.

We do not expect perfect transcriptions. Sometimes unclear or confusing words befuddle even the best professional documentary editor. And it is always possible that another transcriber will come after you and identify a word that you could not. You can also mark a page for formal review and leave a note for the Special Collections team should you want us to take a closer look. Documentary editing is a communal process.

What is important is the knowledge that we can begin to gleam from the transcriptions and the stories we can tell about the past. Citizens historians are crucial to making that possible. 

Manuscripts now available for transcription:

We have ranked these seven projects by degree of difficulty, which increases as one moves down the list.

1. The Papers of Roger B. Taney, 1792-1820  

Roger B. Taney practiced law in his home state of Maryland long before he became an influential member of President Andrew Jackson’s cabinet and later authored the majority opinion in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sanford case (1857) as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. 

Taney (1777-1864) handled many of the cases in this collection just as he began his political ascent in state politics. The papers featured here are legal documents from his practice in Frederick, Maryland. Most items fall between 1805 and 1818. A few cases deal with slaves. These papers offer a unique opportunity to examine Taney’s legal career in its formative years before he rose to national prominence. 

2. Practicing Law in the Early American Republic

The papers offered here feature documents written by major figures from the American Revolution era. These include Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; President James Monroe; future president John Quincy Adams; George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson’s mentor at the College of William and Mary; John Marshall, future chief justice of the Supreme Court; Charles Lee, the brother of Light Horse Harry Lee and uncle to Robert E. Lee; and Edmund Randolph, the first Attorney General of the United States. 

3. The Papers of John B. Minor, 1845-1893

John B. Minor joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1845 at the age of thirty-two. An 1843 graduate of the university, Minor began his teaching career following a decade in private practice. Minor, along with James P. Holcombe, directed the law program at UVA amidst national debates over slavery and the American Civil War. Following the war, Minor and his colleagues presided over a post-war enrollment boom that saw over 100 students in the law program. Meanwhile, Minor took an active role in reforming Virginia’s public education system and published major legal works that established his reputation as one of the South’s legal leading minds. 

The papers in this collection are wide and varied. They include Minor’s lecture notes, legal work, documentation on slaves, correspondence about secession in the Civil War, and post-war politics. They shed important light on Virginia in the Civil War era and illuminate the development of legal education during a period of national upheaval and reconstruction. 

4. The Papers of Solicitors J.M Shugar and A. W. Vaisey, 1850-1914

The documents in this collection contain the stories of nineteenth century English men and women. Solicitors J. M. Shugar and A. W. Vaisey worked as probate and property lawyers in the town of Tring, Hertfordshire, in south central England. They handled wills, estates, and personal property issues for their clients from about 1850 through 1914. Shugar practiced law in Tring from roughly 1850 until his death in 1876. Vaisey, a newly minted lawyer, took over Shugar’s practice and made it his own. Fortunately, their combined papers have survived the years and make it possible for us to know about the lives of their clients in some detail.

Estate papers are crucial for historians’ ability to reconstruct the social world in which people lived. Transcribing wills, estate inventories, and associated documents will help historians reconstruct this nineteenth century world and offer relatives new insights into their ancestors.

5. Letter book for the Receiver of Wrecks at Kingston upon Hull, England, 1855-1861

This handwritten letter book was kept for James Sparrow, who worked for the British Board of Trade as the Receiver of Wrecks at Kingston upon Hull, 1855-1861. The volume begins with an index of correspondents and subjects. While the book primarily records copies of all outgoing mail, there are frequent notes about disposition of matters or copies of replies in the margins.

The letter book offers fascinating insight into British commercial and maritime activities from Kingston upon Hull, a port community in eastern England along the North Sea. Transcribing this manuscript could help inform our understanding of British maritime activities in the mid-nineteenth century. The letters record not just merchant activity and doomed vessels, but government patronage and power. 

6. Scottish Court of Session Records Marginalia Project

This transcription opportunity is one of the most challenging and builds upon a larger initiative at the UVA Law Library to construct a digital archive and research platform centered on our Court of Session Collection. The Court of Session is Scotland’s supreme civil court and court of first instance. Eighteenth century Scottish court records are distinctive for the printed word. Unlike in England or in the American colonies and states, briefs, memorials, petitions, and depositions were printed and given to the court’s judges for their evaluation. Copies of these documents exist in other archives, but the Law Library’s are unique for the marginalia scribbled on them by their two owners, William Craig, Lord Craig, a judge on the court, and Andrew Skene, who briefly served as Scotland’s solicitor general. 

The marginalia illuminates how Craig and Skene interpreted and studied Scots Law as they participated in the making of it. Craig, who owned the papers first and had the worse handwriting of the two, scribbled over cases in which he was involved with as a lawyer before he sat on the court. Skene, who either bought or inherited Craig’s papers, added on to the collection, and made his own notations next to Craig’s. Scottish judges did not issue formal written opinions as the U.S. Supreme Court does. A clerk took note of what the judges said in conversation on the bench. Later, these decisions appeared in legal digests. Skene and Craig often wrote on their papers what the judges said in the court room, probably as they heard them say it. The marginalia pulls back the current on law making and takes us into the room as it happened. 

7. Guisticiati: Italian Manuscript List of Persons Condemned to Death in Venice, 726-1804

The law library knows very little about this manuscript. This project will require people with Italian language skills. Written in Italian and probably composed around 1804, this bound volume contains the names of 1,068 Venetians executed between 726 to 1804. It records names, dates of execution, crimes, and method of execution. Relatively few executions are listed until the late sixteenth century, and almost half of the total listed in this manuscript occurred in the seventeenth century. Crimes included conspiracy, rebellion, treason, theft, forgery, usury, homicide, sodomy, aggression and disturbing the peace. Death was usually by hanging or beheading, but occasionally included torture and display of the bodies.

Please contact Jim Ambuske (jpa4ad@virginia.edu) with any questions. 

1. Journal entry, 18 August 1823, quoted in Lester J. Cappon, Jared Sparks: The Preparation of an Editor, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 90 (1978): 3. See this article for a concise overview of Sparks’s career in documentary editing. The UVA Law Library Special Collections owns a complete twelve-volume set of Sparks’s 1847 edition of The Writings of George Washington. Peter Force’s American Archives remains an important resource for students of the colonial period and American Revolution. The introduction to the digital edition of his Revolutionary era collection at Northern Illinois University Libraries contains a useful brief overview of his career. The site itself is a wonderful research tool. The UVA Law Library Special Collections holds a first edition set of the nine-volume printed work, which covers 1774 to 1776. Force published these volumes between 1837 and 1853.

Published by

Jim Ambuske

Jim Ambuske is the Horatio and Florence Farmer Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities. He received his Ph.D. from UVA in 2016 and is a historian of the American Revolution and early Republic. At the UVA Law Library, Jim works in Special Collections oninterpretive content for the library's major initiatives, curricula for future courses in the digital humanities, and research projects rooted in the library's archives and manuscript holdings. His primary responsibilities at the Law Library include oversight of the Scottish Court of Session Papers project and promoting scholarly access to the library's significant holdings in early American, Virginian, and transatlantic legal history.

Gorsuch Project Launched

Hearings on the nomination of the Honorable Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court are scheduled to begin March 20 and interest in the nominee’s judicial record is high. To assist researchers, we’re proud to announce the launch of the Neil Gorsuch Project, a website that assembles all of Gorsuch’s written opinions, as well as concurrences and dissents he either wrote or joined as a judge for the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Lists of published articles and speeches by Gorsuch are also included. 

The idea for the Gorsuch Project was born after law librarians from several universities and government offices faced a similar question from their patrons: “Find as much information about the new Supreme Court nominee as possible.” The results of that inquiry form the core of the site’s content. More about the project and its contributors can be found on the website.

Published by

Jon Ashley

Jon Ashley has been the Business Research Librarian at the University of Virginia Law Library since 2008. Prior to coming to UVA he was a general reference librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received his M.L.S..

Welcome, Rebecca Hawes!

AJM is delighted to welcome Rebecca Hawes as our new Faculty Services Coordinator. Rebecca manages faculty delivery requests and the Student Delivery Service (SDS). She also supports faculty research, data services, and social media outreach, and she staffs the circulation desk.

Faculty Services Coordinator Rebecca Hawes
Faculty Services Coordinator Rebecca Hawes

Rebecca graduated from the University in 2014 with B.A.s in American Studies and Religious Studies. Most recently she was a college adviser at Nelson County High School, where she worked to improve college access for first-generation, underrepresented, and low-income students. She is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Museum Studies at Johns Hopkins University through its distance learning program. Rebecca is a fan of dogs, dance and travel. Her favorite destinations to date have been London, Paris, and Salzburg.  

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

The Arthur J. Morris Law Library is the home of research for students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.

New Charging Station in MyLab

You’re in the middle of watching a really funny cat video when your phone informs you that its battery is at 3% and you’d better plug in soon if you want to see how it all ends. You reach into your backpack for your life-line — the charger! — only to remember all too clearly that you left it in the outlet in your bedroom.

Once this would have been a problem, but no more. MyLab now offers you the opportunity to recharge yourself and your device at the same time! Just plug in, relax for a bit, and you’ll soon be happily viewing again. The plugs provide full-speed charging for both Apple and Android phones and tablets. 

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

The Arthur J. Morris Law Library is the home of research for students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Interview with a Nutshell Author

This semester saw the publication of the twelfth edition of Legal Research in a Nutshell, a compact but venerable text on legal research that dates back to 1968. Its original author was the late Morris Cohen, then Law Librarian at the University of Pennsylvania, but since the fifth edition in 1992 he has been joined as coauthor by our own Kent Olson. Kent has written about the book’s early days (Birth of a Nutshell: Morris Cohen in the 1960s, 104 Law Libr. J. 53 (2012)), but we sat down to ask him about his own role in the book since then.

AJM: How did you get started as a coauthor of Legal Research in a Nutshell?  

Kent Olson
Legal Research in a Nutshell coauthor Kent Olson.

 

Olson: It started when I was a law student, lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. In 1984, I was a second-year student at Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley) and working for the Law Library part time. My boss, Bob Berring, had worked at Harvard with Morris Cohen, the author of Legal Research in a Nutshell. Morris put out a call looking for people to revise and update chapters of the Nutshell, and Bob turned two chapters over to me. Morris may have been looking for light edits, but I attacked my chapters with gusto, crossing out huge chunks of obsolete text and inserting several new pages. A lesser man might have been offended or appalled, but Morris liked what he saw and asked me to review the entire manuscript before it went to the publisher. We talked on the phone, but we never met in person until the project was over.

The following year I came to Virginia and became a coauthor with Morris and Bob of their legal research hornbook, How to Find the Law. Morris had no interest in taking on a coauthor on his Nutshell, but in 1991 he found himself a week away from a deadline with no revised manuscript. And I was visiting him in the hospital.

AJM: Morris Cohen was a legend among law librarians. What was it like working with him?

Olson: He was my mentor and nearly thirty years my senior, but he always made me feel like a peer rather than a junior associate. Working with him was one of the great privileges of my life. He knew so much more than I did about legal bibliography (and was probably sorry that I never quite shared his love of rare books), but as legal research turned more and more to online search techniques our roles gradually shifted.

I do remember one disagreement, a friendly one, over how to describe the state of administrative law before the Federal Register and the CFR. Morris wanted to call it a wilderness, and I didn’t understand why until I realized we had very different concepts of “wilderness.” Mine was a pristine roadless area protected by environmental legislation, but he was thinking of a biblical place where people wandered lost and in despair. I think we ended up abandoning the metaphor.

AJM: You’ve now worked on nine editions of the Nutshell. How has the book, and legal research, changed over the years?

Legal Research in a Nutshell, 12th and earlier editions
Legal Research in a Nutshell, 12th and earlier editions

 

Olson: When the fourth edition was published in 1985, we had Westlaw and Lexis but a large focus of research was still print-based – some of it in materials today’s students are fortunate never to have seen, such as digests and Shepard’s Citations. “Case-Finding by Computer” was a two-page section of the chapter on case research. Research isn’t necessarily simpler these days, but there are so many answers that used to take work that we can now Google our way to.

People talk about a “sea change” in legal research from print to online, but to my mind it’s more of an evolution. In the end, it’s still about finding persuasive authority and reasoning by analogy. If we reach the point where cases are decided by the number of “likes” or by some machine-based measure, I’ll need to move on.

The book itself has evolved with the changes in research. Free Internet sites were first mentioned in the 6th edition (1996), and HeinOnline first appeared in the 8th edition (2003). There are now more than three hundred websites discussed. We’ve had a companion website with updated links since 2003, and in 2013 we took the illustrations out and put them online as well. Small black-and-white illustrations were fine back when we were showing sample pages of books, but screenshots of websites work so much better in color and on a larger scale. 

Olson with a student in Advanced Legal Research
Olson’s students “help keep me honest by letting me know what’s superfluous and what’s unclear.”

 

AJM: You’ve written other books on legal research, notably the concise hornbook Principles of Legal Research (2d ed. 2015). You also teach Advanced Legal Research. How do teaching and writing about legal research inform each other?

Olson: At the basic level, my students who’ve used draft versions as course texts have saved textbook money and they’ve helped to catch some embarrassing typos before they made it to print. But they also help keep me honest by letting me know what’s superfluous and what’s unclear. If we don’t cover something in class, it might not be important enough to include in the book. And without my students I wouldn’t have known that you need to explain to some digital natives the difference between a table of contents and an index.

AJM: Any regrets about the new edition?

Olson: Of course. There are always regrets. One minor one is that I completely missed that govtrack.us stopped tracking state legislation several months before we went to press. At least I could update that on the Nutshell website. A more significant omission is that I made no mention at all of Practical Law, to which our students have access through Westlaw and which is a really useful and current source of basic legal information in several disciplines. At some point I also should really think about how research by mobile app differs from website-based research.

But this just means I need to start planning for the thirteenth edition. In the past couple of months Lexis Advance added a directory of resources to its main screen and made its Advanced Search much more useful, and Westlaw introduced its “Westlaw Answers” feature when you type a question into the search box. All the references to FDsys in the current edition will be obsolete once GPO completes its transition to govinfo.gov. It won’t be long before January 2016 seems like a very long time ago in legal research.

– AJM 

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

The Arthur J. Morris Law Library is the home of research for students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Welcome, Alex Jakubow!

Alex Jakubow
Alex Jakubow

 

With the new year, you may have noticed a new face in the library. Alex Jakubow joins our research and reference team to support empirical legal research. Alex is skilled with data collection, cleaning and analysis. As law increasingly turns towards large datasets and statistical methods, his expertise will be critical to supporting UVA Law scholarship.

A Wisconsin native, Alex earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from the University of Richmond in 2008. He then attended graduate school at Rutgers University, where he earned a Ph.D. in political science in 2014.

Alex married his graduate school sweetheart, Devon Golem, in September of 2012. Career decisions have taken the pair across the entirety of the continental United States and back in a relatively short amount of time. In less than four years, Alex and Devon have lived in New Jersey, California, and New Mexico before moving to Virginia in December of 2015. Alex and Devon look forward to staying in place for a while, especially when family is near: Alex’s mother and sister respectively live in Williamsburg and Alexandria.

Lunch Lady Doris
Lunch Lady Doris.

 

Devon and Alex live in Charlottesville with their canine companion, Lunch Lady Doris. Doris, a brownish-red Papillion/Dachshund mix, is approximately eight years old. She enjoys having Alex and Devon as tenants in her apartment and sneezes uncontrollably when excited.

Outside of work, Alex enjoys reading, traveling, exercising, and socializing with loved ones. He also looks forward to taking full advantage of the area’s many and varied opportunities for outdoor fun. Guilty pleasures: prolonged consumption of Netflix and, when his family is out of town, video games.

– MoreUs Staff Writers 

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

The Arthur J. Morris Law Library is the home of research for students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.

The New Collaborative Classroom

We are very excited to be debuting the new Collaborative Classroom in room WB 278 in the library (the room with the big leather chairs). We’ve relocated the magazines and books from that room to our new reading room downstairs and converted WB 278 into an interactive classroom and workspace for students. The comfy chairs are still there, but you will also find new modular furniture and four big displays—all designed for skills-based classes and student collaboration.

Collaborative Classroom
The new Collaborative Classroom.

We’ll be using the new room for all of our Advanced Legal Research classes. That class is very much a “learn by doing” course where the students are the focus of each class session. The modular furniture will allow us to easily reconfigure the room on the fly for small group work, large group work or full class discussion. All of the displays are set up so that any student can link their laptop to the display in order to easily share their work with the full class, allowing students to drive the class from their own laptops. We will work together on research exercises and easily switch from small group work to full class discussions using the displays, putting the students in charge of their skill development. We’re thrilled to be able to start using the new interactive space with our Fall Advanced Legal Research classes.

The collaborative classroom is open for student use whenever a class is not in session. Feel free to link your laptops to the displays, rearrange the furniture, and relax in the leather chairs as long as no one is teaching in the room at the time. Just let us know at the reference desk if you have any questions about using the room.

– Ben Doherty 

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Ben Doherty

Ben is a research librarian and Head of Instructional Services at the Law Library. He has worked at the Law Library since 2004.

Second Edition of Olson’s Principles of Legal Research Published

 

Kent Olson
Kent Olson.

This week, West Academic released the second edition of Kent Olson’s highly acclaimed Principles of Legal Research. The first edition of Principles earned Olson his second Joseph L. Andrews Bibliographic Award from the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), which honors a significant contribution to legal bibliographic literature. Principles is the product of Olson’s many years of practicing the art and craft of legal research, and of teaching Advanced Legal Research to many bright and able students at the University of Virginia School of Law. It is the successor to the venerable How to Find the Law, published in nine editions beginning in 1931, the last of which Olson co-authored with Morris Cohen and Robert Berring.

The second edition of Principles of Legal Research remains true to its roots as an indispensable guide to practical legal research. Much of legal research still relies on traditional print-based sources and methods, and for those situations, the book offers refuge for those who may be more comfortable conducting research with a keyboard, mouse, and touch screen than by sifting through hefty tomes of pulp and ink. At the same time, Principles is a trustworthy compass for intelligent navigation of the latest generation of algorithm-based online legal research systems and the vast and growing array of Internet-delivered legal information services.

Works by Kent Olson
An extensive collection of works authored, co-authored or compiled by Kent Olson.

 

Skillful legal research requires a foundational knowledge of how law is made and interpreted and a solid understanding of the documentary outputs of those processes, and Principles of Legal Research offers novice readers the knowledge of both. The book has features that also make it a valuable reference work for experienced legal researchers, including copious footnotes, indexing, and a useful appendix of treatises and services arranged by subject. New to this edition, images of key websites are displayed in full color.

A prolific writer, Kent Olson is also the author of Legal Information: How to Find It, How to Use It (1999) and is author or co-author of several iterations of West’s Legal Research in a Nutshell, now in its 11th edition. Olson is an expert legal researcher and a dedicated professor of legal research. For nearly three decades he has also been colleague, friend, and mentor to the Law Library staff. We heartily congratulate Kent Olson on his latest literary achievement!

– The Law Library Staff

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Arthur J. Morris Law Library

The Arthur J. Morris Law Library is the home of research for students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law.

18th Century Dictionary Returns to U.Va.

18th Century Dictionary
Photo: Title page to the 1766 edition of Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce.

In 1766, British economic writer Malachy Postlethwayt argued that the grand commercial ambitions of the British empire started with good bookkeeping, proper paperwork, and some knowledge about people beyond London. To equip eager young traders to grow British overseas commerce, and by extension the royal revenue, after the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Postlethwayt penned a new edition of his Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, rich with explanations of the mechanics of trade.[1] The Law Library is thrilled to add Volume 1 of this eighteenth-century guide to the globe to its Special Collections as part of the Library’s ongoing project to acquire duplicate editions of the law books listed in the U.Va. Library Catalogue of 1828. Both volumes of Postlethwayt’s Dictionary formed part of the U.Va. Library’s original collections on mercantile law.

For the modern reader, as for the young U.Va. student perusing this reference in the University library in the 1820s, Postlethwayt’s Dictionary explains the vocabulary, products, and practices of eighteenth-century commerce from the London Custom House to the north African caravan.[2] Curious how bills of exchange worked? Check the section on Banking. Wondering about the pearl fishery off of southern India? See the section on East India Trade. Pondering whether eighteenth-century British consumers are likely to continue their new practice of coffee drinking? See Postlethwayt’s thoughts under Coffee. (Spoiler: Yes. Postlethwayt praised coffee for clearing the head and relieving sleepiness, though he warned that drinking too much in one day would surely hazard the “repose of the night.” A stickler for the good stuff, Postlethwayt advised that “coffee which is newly ground has the most virtue.”)

A chart for arbitrating currency exchanges among the major commercial centers of Europe
Photo: A chart for arbitrating currency exchanges among the major commercial centers of Europe. Postlethwayt wrote that traders should be “thoroughly informed” in this branch of commerce.

With commerce always enmeshed in matters of geography, language, and especially law, Postlethwayt’s Dictionary offers a detailed look not only into the minutiae of trade—swearing oaths at the Custom House, filling out double-entry ledgers—but also the lives of those who engaged in or supported trade around London and around the globe. Postlethwayt had specific advice for British merchants who often found themselves entangled in legal disputes: find an honest, able, and experienced attorney at law. Attorneys were gentlemen and scholars, Postlethwayt wrote, who started clerkships at sixteen, understood Latin and French, knew their way around ancient deeds, wrote well, and could unravel any business account laid before them.

At four inches thick, Volume 1 of Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary covers letters A to K and adds to the U.Va. Law Library’s rich collections on the historical practice of law. Special Collections hopes to add the second volume to its inventory in the future.

For research in this or any item at the Law Library Special Collections, see our webpage or contact Special Collections at lawlibref@virginia.edu.

– Randi Flaherty 

_______

References:

Peter Groenewegen, ‘Postlethwayt, Malachy (1707–1767)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2013 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22599, accessed 28 Oct 2014]


[1] Malachy Postlethwayt and Jacques Savary des Brûlons. The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce: With Large Additions and Improvements, Adapting the Same to the Present State of British Affairs in America, Since the Last Treaty of Peace Made in the Year 1763. With Great Variety of New Remarks and Illustrations Incorporated Throughout the Whole: Together with Everything Essential That Is Contained in Savary’s Dictionary: Also, All the Material Laws of Trade and Navigation Relating to These Kingdoms, and the Customs and Usages to Which All Traders Are Subject. (London: H. Woodfall, 1766.)

[2] Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary provided a British perspective on these topics, though Postlethwayt also borrowed liberally from a previous dictionary by the Frenchman Jacques Savary des Brûlons.

Published by

Randi Flaherty

Randi Flaherty was Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities (2014 to 2016) for the Arthur J. Morris Law Library Special Collections Department.

Take a Deep Dive into Lawmaking with FiscalNote

Want to keep up with what’s happening in Congress and in state legislatures? Check out one of the Law Library’s newest database offerings – FiscalNote. FiscalNote’s team of software and public policy entrepreneurs (including a U.Va. Law alum) have developed software and a fun, user-friendly interface that puts at people’s fingertips volumes of information that would take lots of capitol insiders tons of time to compile. FiscalNote gives you not only loads of information, but also crunches that information to predict whether bills will pass. And it delivers straight to your email inbox, via alerts you customize to your interests. Part of the start-up’s mission is to “foster a transparent political and legal system,” and they’ve been attracting press (see #5 of 11) and venture capital interest. See what the buzz is about by signing up for a password.

– Kristin Glover 

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Kristin Glover

Kristin Glover is a Research Librarian at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library.