Many of us would shudder to imagine a researcher 100 years from now poring over our college lecture notes, scribbled in spiral-bound notebooks or, more likely, typed up in hundreds of sporadically organized .docx files. Historical & Special Collections at the Harvard Law School Library has been doing just that, cataloging a collection of over 250 students’ class notebooks amounting to hundreds of volumes. Dating from approximately 1860 to 1970, the collection represents an era that encompassed some of the most formative decades of the Law School’s curriculum and reputation. The Class Notes Collection, now fully cataloged for the first time, should be of great interest to anyone working on legal history, legal education, or the history of Harvard Law School itself.
The bulk of the collection takes the form of neatly homogeneous, crimson-leather-bound notebooks purchased from the Harvard Coop and inscribed on the inner cover with students’ names, local addresses, and desk numbers. “Louis L. Jaffe, 3 Perkins Hall,” one notebook reads. “3L, 1927-28. Property.” Many of the students’ names sound antiquated and (to this author’s ear) aristocratic; with a single exception, all are male. Case law is written on transparent onionskin sheets the size and shape of Post-Its and pasted in on top of lecture notes; red ink is typically used to underline and summarize key arguments in the margins. One gets the impression of a disciplined and uniform method of note-taking, taught from an early age, which gradually fell away after the Second World War and was abandoned as standard practice by the 1960s.
While the notebooks have the outward appearance of uniformity, within, they attest to rich personal histories. Exam prompts, holiday cards, and even the occasional love letter are tucked between their pages. Current law students may find comfort in the near ubiquity of question marks and crossed-out phrases (as well as large splotches of ink). Some are covered in doodles, caricatures, and exhortations (“To hell with Beale!” writes Chauncey Craven Hackett (LL.B. 1906) in his 1905 notes on Equity, taught by Beale), while others suggest great discipline and organization, such as the tidy script and thorough indexing of future HLS professor Austin Wakeman Scott (1884-1981). Many of the notebooks were donated to the library by graduates’ children and grandchildren, and some have been carefully typed up and bound in display volumes. Notable legal minds represented in this collection include Zechariah Chafee (1885-1957), E. Merrick Dodd (1888-1951), Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965), Paul Freund (1908-1992), and David Charny (1955-2000). Their class notes provide valuable and perhaps otherwise inaccessible windows into their formative years as students and thinkers.
The collection should also be very useful to the study of legal curriculum and its development across the twentieth century. While the 1L course load of Torts, Contracts, and Criminal Law has remained largely unchanged since the nineteenth century, a proliferation of electives can be observed beginning in the 1960s, yielding Soviet Law, Antitrust Law, Psychoanalytic Theory and Legal Assumptions, even a class taught by Henry Kissinger on National Security Policy in 1967. From this collection one can learn how Justice Stephen Breyer taught his class on Antitrust Law, or how Derek Bok taught Economic Regulation, through the eyes of their students. The pressures of US history are also apparent, from the cluster of deaths, withdrawals, and hastily rearranged course schedules during World War II, to notes on segregation, the KKK, and Communism in the 1940s and 1950s.
It is the otherwise anonymous, little-heard voices of HLS students across the years that form the bulk of the collection—studying for their exams, trying to remember their locker codes, and forging the opinions that have shaped legal discourse across the last two centuries. We encourage students, faculty, and researchers to come see for themselves what has changed—and what has remained the same—about the studying and teaching of law at Harvard since the late nineteenth century.
Georgia Henley is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, finishing a dissertation on the transmission of historical texts and manuscripts between England and Wales in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. She works part-time in Historical & Special Collections at the Harvard Law School Library.
Note: For now, the easiest way to see the entire collection is in HOLLIS Classic. Under search type select “Other call number” and search for “Class Notes Collection”.
Update: Following the retirement of HOLLIS Classic, the collection can be viewed in HOLLIS by doing a “Browse by Call number – other” and entering “Class Notes Collection”.