Litchfield Law School, Student Notebooks

James Reeve Gould

Portrait Miniature - James Reeve Gould (1803-1830), September 19, 1823, painting,…. Reproduced courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society. 

Litchfield Law School, founded and led by Tapping Reeve (October 1, 1744 - December 13, 1823), is the first private institution for formal legal education in the United States. During its time of operation from 1774 to 1833, the law school educated more than 1,100 students who studied law through a “lecture and copying method.” Students transcribed lectures onto notebooks meant to serve as an encyclopedic treatise throughout their professional practice, while often appending their notes with comments, illustrative content, and reference to other legal sources. Their surviving notebooks are a rich primary source for the study of early legal education and legal history in America.

More than 270 student notebooks are known to be extant. The notebooks are scattered across over 36 institutions, while a few are owned by private collectors. The largest holdings are concentrated at Harvard, Yale, and the Litchfield Historical Society. In 2014, The William Nelson Cromwell Foundation commissioned Whitney Bagnall to "locate, describe, and arrange for the digitization of the surviving manuscript notebooks." Ms. Bagnall collaborated with librarian Jason Eiseman to create the Litchfield Law School Sources portal, which includes an up-to-date list of all known digitized notebooks from across multiple institutions. With generous funding from the Foundation, the Yale Law Library collaborated with Ms. Bagnall on a multi-year initiative which resulted in the digitization of over 180 notebooks held at the Yale Law Library, the Litchfield Historical Society, Columbia Law Library, George Washington Law Library, Boston College Law Library, Wesleyan University Library, and Yale Manuscripts & Archives. Locating and digitizing remaining notebooks remain an ongoing effort.