Morris L. Cohen: Obituary

Yale Law School Professor Emeritus and Librarian Emeritus Morris L. Cohen, who directed two of the world’s most esteemed academic law libraries, passed away Saturday, December 18, 2010, at his home in New Haven. He was 83.

Cohen was one of the towering figures of late 20th century law libraries and among the foremost legal bibliographers in the United States, as well as a beloved teacher and mentor. He was a Professor of Law and director of the law library at Yale Law School from 1981 until his retirement in 1991, when he became Professor Emeritus of Law and Professorial Lecturer in Law. Before joining Yale, he served as director of the law libraries at Harvard from 1971 to 1981, the University of Pennsylvania from 1963 to 1971, and SUNY-Buffalo from 1961 to 1963.

“Morris Cohen directed four of the leading law libraries in the United States. He served here since 1981 and everyone experienced his talent, his scholarly range, his dedication, and his love,” said Yale Law School Dean Robert Post ’77. “Morris was admired throughout the entire community of legal education. 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.”

Born in New York City on November 2, 1927, Cohen was a son of the late Emanuel and Anna (Frank) Cohen. He was educated in the public schools of New York City and later earned his B.A. at the University of Chicago in 1947, his J.D. from Columbia University Law School in 1951, and his M.L.S. from the Pratt Institute School of Library Service in 1959. He also received an honorary doctorate from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1989.

Professor Cohen practiced law in New York City from 1951 to 1958, before embarking on his library career in 1958 as assistant librarian at Rutgers University Law School. Following a year at Rutgers, he served as assistant librarian at Columbia University Law School from 1959 to 1961.

Professor Cohen’s scholarship helped shape how legal research is taught and eased the path to historical research for any who ventured in that direction. One of his greatest achievements was his landmark six-volume Bibliography of Early American Law (1998), which enables users to find any law book published in America before 1860. He also co-authored some of the leading legal research textbooks, including How to Find the Law and Legal Research in a Nutshell. The latter remains a favored textbook for research instruction.

Professor Cohen was a book collector in his own right and developed a substantial personal library. In 2008, hedonated his unique collection of law-related children’s books to the Yale Law Library, saying he did so because of his affection for the Library and its Rare Book Collection.

“This Library was the capstone of my fifty-year-long career in legal education at Columbia, Buffalo, Pennsylvania, Harvard, and Yale,” Professor Cohen said at the time. “It is my hope that students here can study this unique collection and see how our law was, and still is, being disseminated and forming an important part of our children’s civic education.”

Professor Cohen was also quite knowledgeable about rare books, was a member of the Grolier Club in New York City, and taught the summer course on rare law books and manuscripts at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. He was a formative member of the American Association of Law Libraries and served as its president from 1970 to 1971. He was the recipient of AALL’s Joseph L. Andrews Bibliographical Award for his Bibliography of Early American Law and also for A Guide to the Early Reports of the Supreme Court of the United States (1995), co-authored with Sharon H. O’Connor. He was the first person ever to win this award twice.

“In addition to his many remarkable achievements, Morris had a kind and gentle spirit, loved his teaching and engaging with students, and displayed a great sense of puckish humor,” said Blair Kauffman, Law Librarian at Yale Law School. “He was curious about everything and everybody and was a delightful meal companion who always encouraged sharing a dessert. He loved film and live theater and above all, his wife Gloria and family. We’ll all miss him.”

Professor Cohen is survived by his wife Gloria (Weitzner) Cohen; son Daniel Cohen and his wife Elizabeth; daughter Havi Hoffman; and granddaughter Rachel Hoffman.

A funeral was held on Monday, December 20, at the Robert E. Schure Funeral Home, 543 George Street, New Haven. The family will be sitting Shiva from Monday evening, December 20, through Sunday morning, December 26, at 84 McKinley Avenue, New Haven.

Professor Cohen’s family has asked that memorial contributions be made to Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI), 85 Harrison St., New Haven, CT 06515; the American Jewish World Service, 45 W. 36th St., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018-7904; or the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, 300 Research Pkwy., Suite 310, Meriden, CT 06450.

Comments and Tributes

I first met Morris in the 1980s when I was working for the University Librarians at Yale.  When it was announced to the heads of the Yale libraries that I was leaving that position, Morris–with his characteristic generosity of spirit–sat down with me and asked about my motivation and interests and plans for the future.  He encouraged me to watch for positions at the Law School,” as the new Dean, Guido Calabresi, was undertaking some restructuring of positions.  Inquiries led to conversations and then to interviews, and ultimately–with kind words from Morris and other Yale friends along the way–to my appointment as the Director of Admissions, a position I held for 17 years.  I was privileged to make a fundamental contribution to this internationally renowned institution over several generations of students.  It all began with a simple act of kindness on the part of Morris Cohen.  May he rest in peace.   

Jean K. Webb
Manager, Foundation & Government Relations, International Festival of Arts & Ideas

I was deeply saddened to hear about  the death of Professor Morris.One of my favorite professor WIlner ( He passed away on 21 May, 2010)introdeuced me Professor Morris. I had nice talk with Professor Moris. I was planing to meet him at New Haven this february. Throughout my talk with him, I have valued his friendship,kindness and thoughtfulness. His memories will be hold close to my heart.Memories of our times together regardless of where we were or what we were doing will be forever held  dear to me. I feel very privileged and enriched to have known him as a  friend and collaborator.His influence will continue for a long time to come, through so many people who have benefited directly from his generosity.My thoughts and prayers are always with his family.This is a great loss to us.We really lost a great teacher, a scholar, a great friend and a wounderful person.

Teachers are heroes in my life. He will be greatly missed. He will continue to live in our hearts.

May Gods’ grace and strength be with his family

May his soul rest in perfect peace

With my deep condolence,

Prasanth Bhaskar Nair

prasanthpb@yahoo.com

Prasanth Bhaskar Nair
University of Georgia Athens, USA

As a fairly new librarian, I attended my first AALL convention in 1972.  I was startled when Morris Cohen, already a past president of AALL, asked me to address him as “Morris”.   When I was reference librarian at Cornell, he would come for several years on an annual visit to examine the collection Cornell had purchased from a former Yale librarian, Samuel Thorne.  I got to know him fairly well.  At that time, Prof. Cohen was the Harvard law librarian.  So around 1980, I wrote him to ask whether he had any openings for a reference librarian.  He wrote back saying that there was no position open.  His one and half page letter was so extraordinarily kind that I kept it for several decades. 

On my 59th birthday on Aug. 14, 1992, my wife and I travelled from Cambridge to New Haven searching for the Yale thesis of my stepson’s father.  We stopped off at the law school to say hello.  I let it slip that it was my birthday and he invited us to have lunch with him at Mory’s.  At that lunch he gave me a present, his book on the law as found in art.  When I got home, I sent him a thank you saying that although it was tacky on my part to do so, I had to note two historical inaccuracies.  He replied saying that I was in good company since the Yale law dean has told him the same thing. 

In short, Morris was not only a real scholar and a gentleman, he was a genuinely lovable individual.

Dale Alan Diefenbach
Harvard Law School

I first met Morris on a very cold snowy day in December 1975.  I was a student in the Law Librarianship Program at the University of Washington in Seattle and my mentor and teacher, Marian Gallagher, had set up an appointment for me to meet the famous Professor Cohen at the Harvard Law School when I was visiting my husband in Boston over the Christmas break.  Unfortunately, it snowed about 2 feet the night before my interview.  We were just able to get to Harvard Square on the bus and had no idea where we were!  Finally a policeman in a small booth tried to give us directions - in a Boston accent so thick, he had to repeat himself dozens of time.  By then we were very late for the interview - and slogging through the unplowed snow made us wet and grumpy.  When I finally found Professor Cohen’s office, I was completely flustered and embarrassed …. and he was simply charming and warm.  He was gracious and kind to me, showing me much of the law library and talking about the great profession I was about to enter.  Despite that rocky start, Morris permitted me to come back that spring to do my fieldwork in the great Harvard Law Library - what an opportunity!  I spent the time doing an inventory of the state administrative agency decisions they had in paper in preparation for a preservation microfilming project.  Ah, those were the days!  Morris even offered me a job at the law library working with the Moody sisters on their famous legal bibliography.  I turned down that job for one in Maine.  I often wonder how different my path in law librarianship might have been if I had made a different decision…….

Over the years, I have used Morris’ legal research text, learning from a master.  He was a man who cared for our profession and for the past and future of legal information.  Thank you, Morris, for your generosity and encouragement along the way.  Your legacy lives on.

Penny Hazelton
University of Washington School of Law

Morris Cohen was greatly respected, appreciated and admired by Owen.  My condolences to the Cohen family.

Gene S. Kupferschmid
 

For his open mind, his loving heart, and his generous hand - extended to so many of us over so many years - we are grateful and filled with memories.  Zichrono l’vracha

Bub
 

There are so many remembrances of Morris. Of course there are the general ones of his incredible intellect and kindness- but others more specific. I met Morris at my first AALL workshop on Legal Research– he was a marvelous voice for how to teach the subject and told me ( after reading my first assignment at the workshop) that my collection and development goals were too modest. I had only been a law librarian for 6 months and he taught me to think big. I never thought small again even though I managed a very modest collection.

One thing about Morris some of you may not know– he had a priceless collection of  old  pornographic ivory and other materials.. They were not crude pornography which we see today, but artistic stuff. The pieces were very old and beautiful. This was part of his wonderful, dry sense of humor.

Imagine meeting Morris at your very first AALL activity and thinking the profession was full of peole like him. Although we did and do have wonderful and smart people, very few were like Morris.

“Now cracks a noble heart. Good night , sweet prince

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.  ( Hamlet)

Leah F. Chanin
 

Morris was one of my first inspirations as a law librarian and he was a great teacher to many Connecticut law librarians of a certain age who had the privilege of taking his legal bib course at Southern.  He was such a sweet guy and a giant at the same time.

Chris Graesser
Connecticut Legislative Library

Morris was my colleague, my friend, and – in more ways than he knew – my mentor.  I shall miss him in all of those ways.

Edward A. Dauer
 

Morris Cohen was a blessing to so many throughout his life.  As a student, I read Morris’s exquisite guide to legal research, which remains valuable nearly fifty years later.  And as a student, I talked with Morris about research in the old Biddle Law Library and about the joy of reading, collecting, and preserving books in paper.  He did the extraordinary, allowing me over the course of a semester in sit in the rare books cage with the early folio editions of Coke.  That experience led to an early article and a lifelong interest in history.  The experience that cannot be duplicated at a keyboard.  Morris well understood that what we learn from the sight and feel of a printed book, from reading and turning its pages and leafing through its tables and indexes, cannot be replicated.   His great catalog of early American books, I expect, will continue to inspire the preservation and use of original printed materials.  As everyone knows, he was kind and gentle, never critical, always guiding.  He was interested in what I and others were doing and whether we were looking everywhere we might.  While I have been fortunate to meet and work with several great law librarians, Morris remains for me the epitome of excellence in the profession.  I consider myself fortunate to have lived in New Haven for several years later in my life and have had the opportunity to meet and talk with Morris about books and preserving our collective memories.  Morris, you will continue to be a blessing to all of us. 

Neil H. Cogan
Whittier College/Law School

Professor Morris Cohen was responsible for so many of us in the legal history and legal rare books field to grow professionally and spread the legal knowledge through rare books. I remember meeting him at an AALL conference in Washington, D.C., where he took those few of us then (I think four of us), under his wing, out to dinner to discuss our interests. He took personal pride in, and paid attention to each of us individually and collectively, and was always not only encouraging, but expecting great things from us. 

He always took such joy in teaching legal history, discovering the connection outside the law, in classic children’s stories and books, tying them together. I know he contributed much more to the law than just legal history and a love of rare books. But in my little world of legal history and rare books, he cemented my interest in the field. I owe much of my career to Professor Cohen, and I will never forget his discussions, in and outside the law.  We have lost a wonderful mentor, but we gained so much from him. 

Thank you Professor Cohen, for everything. 

Laura A. Bedard
Georgetown Law Library

Morris was a great intellect. When I first went to the University of Buffalo I discovered this large collection of wonderful rare books in our “attic”. Morris told me he had purchased most of them for around $25. We cataloged them and created the Morris Cohen collection, still at the SUNY Buffalo Law Library.

I will miss his gentleness, great mind and presence.He certainly helped creat the law librarian profession..

Kathleen Carrick
Case Western Reserve University

Morris Cohen was an incredible librarian who fashioned a profession with the highest academic standards. He was a friend and mentor to all of us as we embarked on our careers. He had a wonderful twinkle in his eye which always made me think he was up to some surprise or had a knowing understanding of bibliographic nuance that some of us could not appreciate. An era has ended with his passing–law librarinship is diminished, but will renew itself in Morris’ memory.

Robert J. Nissenbaum
Fordham University School of Law

Morris was an elegant and witty gentleman who knew all of our collections better than we did. I remember him at LC in the late 1980s, discovering treasures that had not seen the light for at least a century. We should all tip our hats – at one time, surely – in memory of our lovely friend. 

Keith Ann Stiverson
Chicago-Kent College of Law