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The largest law libraries in the world are found in the United States, due to the unique nature of American federalism and the extraordinarily complex legal system that developed as a result. The world's largest law library is the Law Library of Congress, which holds over 2.65 million volumes. The world's largest academic law library is the library of Harvard Law School, which holds over 2 million volumes. By way of contrast, the largest law library in the United Kingdom is the Bodleian Law Library, whose collection of 450,000 volumes is merely average by U.S. standards.
Every accredited American law school is required by the American Bar Association to have a law library meeting certain minimum specifications with respect to quantity and quality of materials available. Some law school libraries are kept in the same building as the general library, but many are either in the law school's building, or in a separate facility altogether. Most courthouses also have a law library; the United States Supreme Court building houses one of the most extensive in the world, rivaled by the Law Library of Congress. Some larger law firms maintain a private library for their own attorneys, but many firms in college towns and larger cities with universities simply dispatch their attorneys to local law schools to do legal research.
New York and California by statute require all counties to maintain a public law library. While New York public law libraries have remained relatively small, the LA Law Library in Los Angeles County is currently second in size behind the Law Library of Congress among U.S. public law libraries, with a collection at just under 1 million volumes.
A typical law library will include in its collection a large number of works not seen in other libraries, including a full set of United States Reports, one or both of the unofficial U.S. Supreme Court reporters, the West National Reporter System, the West American Digest System, official reporters from various states, the Federal Register, volumes of American Jurisprudence, bound volumes containing issues of prominent law reviews from around the country, federal and state statutes and regulations (such as the United States Code and Code of Federal Regulations), and a variety of treatises, encyclopedias, looseleaf services, and practice guides.
Large libraries may contain many additional materials covering topics like legal education, research, and writing; the history of the American legal system and profession; the history behind certain high-profile cases; techniques of oral argument; and the legislative history of important federal and state statutes.
In contrast, a small law library, at a minimum, may contain only one unofficial Supreme Court reporter, selected West national reporters and digests specific to the state in which the library is located, the United States Code, a few state-specific reporters and statutory compilations (if they exist for a particular state), and several state-specific treatises and practice guides. Most academic law library websites also contain legal research guidelines on numerous legal topics that are available to the public.
In recent years, the advent of online legal research outlets such as FindLaw, Westlaw, LexisNexis, and HeinOnline (or in Canada, CanLII) has reduced the need for some types of printed volumes like reporters and statutory compilations. A number of law libraries have therefore reduced the availability of printed works that can easily be found on the Internet, and have increased their own Internet availability. On the other hand, some university law libraries retain extensive historical collections going back to the earliest English reports.
The American Association of Law Libraries is a major alliance of American law libraries, to which most of them belong. As of 2010, it has over 5,000 member libraries. Another important association for law libraries is the Special Libraries Association.
As of 2010, the American Bar Association has propounded rules requiring each law school's law library to include among its holdings the following "core collection":
The ABA also requires a library's collection to meed the academic needs of the students and research and teaching needs of the faculty.
The ABA further sets forth additional requirements, including the requirement that the law library have a full-time director who holds a law degree and exquivalent or extensive experience in librarianship. The ABA also requires that the library have sufficient staff and facilities to attend to the needs of the institution.
Outside of the United States, the largest and most extensive law libraries are those found in countries that follow the English common law which spread throughout the world with the expansion of the British Empire. These countries include but are not limited to Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, the United States and numerous other nations - most still members of the British Commonwealth. The earliest law libraries were founded in the late 15th century in London and include Grays Inn and Lincoln's Inn.
Law libraries in these common law countries can be found in generally the same form as in the United States including court/government libraries, private law firm libraries, and academic law libraries, although in somewhat different form in that the study of law in these countries differs in some respects from the U.S.