In memoriam: Morris L. Cohen (1927-2010)

Michael Widener

I am one of many, many people who are mourning the loss of Morris L. Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Law at Yale Law School and the director of its Law Library from 1981 to 1991. I join with them in extending my condolences to his wife Gloria and their family. The Lillian Goldman Law Library has set up a tribute page with links to eulogies and other resources.

I beg leave to add a eulogy on behalf of the community of rare law book librarians and collectors that Morris so lovingly nurtured throughout his career. I take as my text the list of “bibliographic beatitudes” that Morris included in a 1982 article on our Blackstone Collection (“Blackstone at Yale,” Yale Law Report, Spring/Summer 1982, 18-20).

  • “Blessed are the book collectors for they preserve the printed word.” Morris and David Warrington (Librarian for Special Collections, Harvard Law Library) trained dozens of librarians and collectors through their week-long summer course, “Collecting the History of Anglo-American Law,” at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School; note the glowing reviews in the course evaluations. He began the rare book collection at the University of Buffalo Law Library that now bears his name (the Morris L. Cohen Rare Book Collection). He played a major role in shaping the special collections of the law libraries he headed at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and here at Yale. The collection of law-related children’s books that Morris and his son Dan formed is inspired, creative book collecting at its finest, an example of what Colin Franklin called “book collecting as one of the fine arts.”
  • “Blessed are the library donors for they support the pursuit of knowledge.” Morris donated his collection of law-related children’s books to our Rare Book Collection, christened as the Juvenile Jurisprudence Collection. But he didn’t stop there; he asked me to continue adding to it, and I have gleefully complied. He loaned books for a number of exhibits, most notably to Boston College Law Library (“Collectors on Collecting” and “Law & Order Made Amusing“)and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Morris was also a generous scholar, sharing knowledge and contacts. Several of his younger proteges will recall him going to bat for them at legal history conferences when their papers drew sharp responses.
  • “Blessed also are the bibliographers for they bring order to the works of scholarship and make them accessible.” The monumental seven-volume Bibliography of Early American Law (1998-2003) is perhaps the capstone of Morris’s illustrious career, the product of three decades of work by Morris and a legion of collaborators and research assistants. The annotations and superb indexes make it THE essential tool for researching early American legal literature. In publications such as “Administration of Rare Materials” (in Mueller & Kehoe, Law Librarianship, a Handbook, 1983), Morris literally wrote the book on rare law book librarianship, and promoted the importance of historical collections in academic law libraries. He was the leading evangelist for bringing rare law book collections out of storage rooms and directors’ offices and making them integral parts of academic law libraries. The Legal History & Rare Books Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries honored his contribution by establishing the Morris L. Cohen Student Essay Competition, “to encourage scholarship in the areas of legal history, rare law books, and legal archives, and to acquaint students with the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) and law librarianship.”

By his own standards, Morris Cohen was thrice-blessed. All who knew him were blessed as well.

Memory Eternal… 


Rare Book Librarian

Gloria & Morris Cohen at Morris’s 80th birthday party, 2 Nov. 2007.

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