Remembering Morris Cohen

Former Harvard Law School Librarian Morris L. Cohen, who directed four academic law libraries over a career that spanned more than fifty years, passed away on Saturday, December 18, 2010, at his home in New Haven. Yale Law School Professor Emeritus and Librarian Emeritus at the time of his death, he was eighty-three.

Professor Morris L. CohenFollowing directorships of the law libraries at SUNY-Buffalo and the University of Pennsylvania, Morris became Librarian at the Harvard Law School in 1971. “The library should be an educational force in the school, rather than a passive place,” he told the Harvard Law Record shortly after he arrived in Cambridge; “my orientation is toward a personal sort of librarianship.” The characterization was certainly apt as countless students, researchers, and colleagues have discovered for themselves. No one delighted more in sharing an encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of legal research than Morris nor was more enthusiastic in teaching the techniques of discovering legal information. He was as indefatigable in expanding library collections and services as he was in conducting his own research and writing; someone once remarked that Morris was the energizer bunny before there was an Energizer Bunny.

During his decade at the Library, Morris worked to build an organization that held its research and teaching responsibilities to the same high standard as it did its curatorial ones. He designed and implemented the Library’s first program in the teaching of legal research, and introduced computers into the Library for LEXIS and for computerized legal instruction. Under his watch the Library’s book collection increased 30% to 1.4 million volumes. To protect its unmatched collections of rare books and manuscripts, he oversaw the conversion of the Langdell South Middle classroom into a state-of-the-art special collections storage facility with compact stacks and excellent temperature and humidity control. Above all, he hired and mentored a new generation of law librarians whose subsequent accomplishments have shaped modern law librarianship.

At the beginning of his career Morris developed a passion for learning everything he could about the books and manuscripts that make up the raw materials of legal history. An interview in the Harvard Law Bulletin (Spring 1981) reported that “in 1963 he became interested in the bibliographic accomplishments of Eldon James [a former HLS Professor and Librarian] who had published A List of Legal Treatises Printed in the British Colonies and American States Before 1801” and with his friend and former colleague Balfour Halevy “resolved to collaborate on a comprehensive bibliography of American law during its early development.” The endeavor required nearly four decades of inspecting multiple copies of books pertaining to U. S. law to 1860 and compiling accurate bibliographic descriptions of them, a herculean task almost entirely accomplished in the days before word processors. The result is the magisterial multi-volume Bibliography of Early American Law (1998).

The Harvard Law School has been extraordinarily well served by its Librarians. From John Arnold, the School’s first professional librarian appointed in 1872 by its first dean, C. C. Langdell, to the present, each director has changed the Library in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways. Morris realized that School need more than just an outstanding collection of legal materials; it also needed effective programs and dedicated staff to facilitate the interpretation of those resources. The reputation that the Library enjoys today for excellent and innovative service is but one of his many legacies.

In his honor the Library established in 2009 the Morris L. Cohen Fellowship in American Legal Bibliography and History; full details are available here.

David Warrington

Professor Morris L. Cohen seated in his office, smoking a pipe, at Harvard Law School. John Chapin, photographer, 1978.

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