A Distinguished Doodle – and How to Catalogue It

After I wrote my previous post on finding those two books containing Sir John A. MacDonald’s autographs, I remembered another discovery of mine.

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I found this friendly fellow – with excellent hipster facial hair, I might add – as I was recataloguing books the other day. He looks to me like he belongs in one of Edward Lear’s nonsense poems, like this chap here:

Our bewhiskered gentleman friend peers out from page 64 of a 1702 text on The Practice of Courts-Leet and Courts-Baron. Courts-what? Since I can’t very well post on a law blog without offering some legal content, here’s the answer, taken from Wikipedia’s straightforward summary:

At a very early time in medieval England the Lord of the Manor exercised or claimed certain jurisdictional rights over his tenants and bondsmen concerning the administration of his manor and exercised those rights through his “court baron”. The main business of the court baron was the resolution of disputes involving a lord’s free tenants within a single manor, the enforcement of the feudal services owed to the lord of the manor by his tenants, and the admission of new tenants. The court had no power to deal with criminal acts; however, criminal jurisdiction could be granted to a trusted lord by the Crown by means of an additional franchise, giving to the lord the prerogative rights he owed feudally to the king. The most important of these was the “view of frankpledge”, by which tenants were held responsible for the actions of others within a grouping of ten households. In the later Middle Ages, the lord, when exercising these powers, gained the name of “leet”, which was a jurisdiction of a part of a county; hence the franchise was of “court leet”. The quo warranto proceedings of Edward I established a sharp distinction between the court baron, exercising strictly manorial rights, and the court leet, depending for its jurisdiction upon royal franchise. However in many areas it became customary for the two courts to meet together. Over time, serious cases were increasingly reserved for itinerant justices and the local courts restricted themselves to petty misdemeanours only. After the 16th century, the duties of the court leet were increasingly transferred to justices of the peace, though some courts leet continue to function in England.

Tuck that trivia away, and use it at a party. It’s a guaranteed conversation starter. For another definition, you can try out the always reliable Britannica, or consult Warren Ortman Ault’s Private Jurisdiction in England, available from our catalogue. But be honest – could you make it through a chapter on courts leet without even a single doodle to stave off the tedium? Doodle away — in two hundred years your book might in the hands of a historian. [1]

This image is amusing, no doubt, but it is also a great example of what we often look for in rare books: unique qualities. You sometimes hear the partial quotation, “books have their own destinies” (“Habent sua fata libelli” for all you fancy Latinists out there). Once a book is published and sent out into the world, anything can happen. Sometimes, over the centuries, one particular volume may acquire features that distinguish it from its brothers and sisters – a new binding, a stamp, an inscription, marginalia, or yes, even a doodle. This bonus content, as I like to consider it, can be enormously informative in the hands of a capable scholar. For instance, in the discipline of book history, determining the habits of readers long ago is notoriously difficult, but markings in books, however slight, might offer insight. Scholar H.J. Jackson devoted book length study to the readers writing in their books, available over in Scott Library.

Here at Osgoode, we’re doing our part to locate and catalogue such features. To do so, we’re editing existing catalogue records to add “genre headings” (please excuse my jargon). Genre headings allow librarians more options in their cataloguing. Catalogue records for most items in the library will contain typical fields indicating author, title, subject, publication information, etc, that all serve as access points to the item. If librarians want to add another piece of information / access point for which the usual catalogue record does not make allowances (for instance, content type, media type, carrier type, genre types, and form and physical characteristics, as listed by the Library of Congress) they can consult an appropriate LC approved thesaurus or glossary, find the term that describes what they desire to describe, and pop it into the record while citing the source of that term. With genre headings, instead of looking through every single book in our library to see which of them have inscriptions (or doodles or any other feature), we can simply search our catalogue for records with the appropriate genre-heading, eg, “Inscriptions”.

To see how this all comes together, take a look at our catalogue record for The Practice of Courts-Leet and Courts-Baron, or for the books featured in our last post, Chitty’s Precedents, and click the “Staff View” tab. This offers a look at the item’s MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloguing) record, which breaks the record you’re used to into its coded data fields. You’ll find genre headings down in the 655 field. In this field, the word in subfield marked “|a” is “Markings”, a catch-all phrase to denote “any distinctive feature impressed manually or mechanically” on or in the book.  The “|2” subfield indicates the source of the heading “Markings”. In this case we find “rbprov”, which means that this particular genre heading came from the Library of Congress’s Provenance Evidence: Thesaurus for Use in Rare Book and Special Collections Cataloguing. All of this to-do with thesauri and exact terminology stems from a very important concept in library science known as “authority control”. Who’d have thought the most despotic phrase in the entire English language would come from a librarian? It sounds ominous, but it’s really just a way to make sure we’re all referring to something with the same language – so we all say “markings”, for example, instead of “doodles,“ “scribbles,” or “neat stuff found in books”.

Our books have worth in themselves as documents of ages past, but with this continued project of cataloguing these unique and informative elements, we might be able to piece together these little fragments of evidence to tell another story.

1. Note: This is most certainly not permission to deface library books. In your own texts only please!

Oxford Handbooks Online

The Osgoode Library has acquired the complete collection of law-related Oxford Handbooks Online and the records for the individual titles have been uploaded to the online library catalogue.

Oxford Handbooks Online brings together the world’s leading scholars to write review essays that evaluate the current thinking on a field or topic, and make an original argument about the future direction of the debate. The Oxford Handbooks are one of the most successful and cited series within scholarly publishing, containing in-depth, high-level articles by scholars at the top of their field and for the first time. In addition to law, there are 13 other subject areas covered by the Handbooks: a complete list is available here. The Handbooks website also provides an online training demo illustrating the features and functions of the service.

Now that Osgoode has acquired the law-related Handbooks, the complete collection is available online here at York University Libraries.

The Oxford Bibliographies Online

An experienced researcher knows the value of a well prepared subject bibliography. An annotated subject bibliography is usually prepared by leading scholars or librarians to provide other researchers with a selected or comprehensive list of research materials related to that subject. Depending on the subject, bibliographies typically include books, peer review journal articles, and other publications such as websites and government documents. In other words, bibliographies are expert recommendations on the best works available in the discipline.

York University Libraries have recently subscribed to the Oxford Bibliographies Online (OBO), a database of bibliographies covering a wide range of subjects, including some law topics. The OBO combines the benefits of both bibliographies and encyclopedias and offers extensive annotations to the works included in the bibliographies. It’s both searchable and browsable. Each work listed in OBO includes links to locate it through Worldcat and/or Google books, making it easy to access the item. In the current subject list, “International Law”, “international relations” and criminology are directly related to law. There are nearly one hundred articles (i.e. topical bibliographies) under the subject “international law”, for example, human rights, natural law, use of force, feminist approaches to international law, international environmental law, international financial law, and so on. You can browse the full list of topics by choosing the subject “international law” when browsing the subject list.

For your next research project, please don’t forget to check out the Oxford Bibliographies Online. If you happen to find a bibliography relevant to your research topic, it will save you lots of time!

Legal Research Refresher

The Library is happy to offer a Legal Research Refresher session on Monday, May 5 from 10 am to 2 pm in Room 2003.

These are the topics that will be covered:

10:00-10:25am – Multi-disciplinary research
10:30-10:55am – Foreign and comparative legal research
11:00-11:50am – Legislation and case research
12:00-12:50pm – Secondary sources research
1:00-1:50pm – Legal citation and citation management tools

The session is primarily geared to Research Assistants, but graduate students, Law Journal editors, Innocence Project, CLASP and Parkdale students are also welcome.

A light lunch will be provided.

To reserve a spot please email the library at library@osgoode.yorku.ca

Well my day just became much more interesting…

Which is not to say I do not normally enjoy my job, because I do. I consider myself a bookish fellow, so to come to the library and work all day in a room full of old leather-bound volumes hardly even feels like work at all… okay, it feels a little like work. But as they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover, so I can’t just sit around and admire them sitting on the shelf. Sometimes, I actually have to open them, and on occasion I find something more than just the printed text.

We’re currently in the process of reorganizing the Osgoode rare book collections by size – a project which will shortly be the subject of another post. As part of the project, I’m reviewing each volume before assigning the new shelf number, updating and upgrading the cataloguing as necessary. Today I came across two rather plain volumes, though nicely rebound in brown quarter-leather with canvas boards, and their spines decorated with gilt rules and red labels bearing the succinct title Precedents / Chitty. Nevertheless, though I think I’d normally leave something like this on the shelf, I was obligated to part the covers and take a look inside.

The front pastedown endpaper proudly bore its York Law Library bookplate, but again that was nothing remarkable, as most of these books do. As I turned the page, however, something caught my eye. On the verso of the front free endpaper was a short inscription. I love finding these notes in books because they are sometimes as entertaining as they are informational. Much of the time inscriptions simply record details such as the name of the book’s owner, the price they paid for it, and when they made the purchase. Today’s inscription looked fairly typical. It was signed “W. David McPherson”, and a quick search revealed him to have been a Member of Provincial Parliament in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, representing Toronto West from 1908 to 1919, and a lawyer in Toronto before that. It’s always gratifying to pin a book’s provenance to a known historical figure; but McPherson’s status as pre-eminent former owner was short-lived, for his inscription read:

“Purchased this 9th day of December 1891 from Oliver, Coate & Co. on Sale of Law Library of the Right Honorable…”

…and this is when my day got much more interesting…

“…Sir John A. MacDonald G.C.B.”

And not only that, but as my eyes scanned across to the facing title-page, I saw a neat little scribble. Though I might have expected that the Prime Minister’s well-publicized tippling would have produced an unsteady hand, I could clearly read the signature “John A. MacDonald”.

I quickly turned to the second volume which, as I expected, bore the exact same inscription and the exact same autograph. Here I had in my hands two books documented to have been in our first prime minister’s personal library. Not only that, I had his autograph – twice! MacDonald was called to the Bar in 1836, and these volumes were published in 1839, so he may have bought them new; his signature is evidence that they were in his personal possession, evidence supported by the inscription by the subsequent purchaser. The books provide evidence of another characteristic of the early law book trade in Canada: Though Canada was still a British colony at the time, these books were published in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was common practice to import American editions of British legal classics, simply because they were so much more affordable than books imported from the Old World.

This lucky encounter reminded me of a phrase, “discovered in storage”, which you sometimes hear in conversation about museums and libraries. This phrase would apply to an artifact or item that the institution didn’t even know it owned until it was, by stroke of fortune, recovered from obscurity. Such stories are actually quite common.  For museums and rare book libraries, the reason we collect books or artifacts and catalogue them is to protect and preserve them from damage, but also from loss. Still, sometimes it just happens that items of note are lost or forgotten over time simply due to the sheer volume of materials that surround it. In this case, the original cataloguer simply missed the importance of the signature and inscription, presuming they were even noticed. The concept of finding new items in an established collection highlights some of the inherent difficulties – and pleasures! – of librarianship. Effectively, if an item isn’t catalogued, it doesn’t exist; and even if it is catalogued, if no one knows to look for it, isn’t it as good as nonexistent? And then the questions become existential: Why are we even doing this in the first place?! Such are the Borgesian nightmares of librarians. Sadly, this is what keeps me up at night.