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A Legacy to Our Library: Dean Rufus King's Efforts Strengthen Today's Law Library Collection

How an 1800s murder led to law school’s recent acquisition of 25K historical books.

It’s 1884 and a murder has occurred in Cincinnati. “The defendant in this case was acquitted,” said UC Law Volunteer Professor of Law Jim O’Reilly. “But some citizens of Cincinnati were not happy about it.”  A mob stormed the Hamilton County Courthouse, attacked it, and set the building and the law library on fire. The Ohio militia was called in to calm the crowd, but the damage had been done. The county’s law library had been destroyed.

            Cincinnati Law College’s Dean Rufus King, who was also the chairman of the association that operated the country’s law library, stepped into action. Knowing the importance and need for a law library, Dean King asked his friends and other community attorneys to donate to the new library. He also gave volumes from his personal collection. Books from the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, along with early American documents were gifted to re-create a collection that had started in 1845.

Plans Made to Preserve Books

            The library collection of historical resource texts grew to almost 25,000 volumes, housed at the Cincinnati Law Library Association (CLLA). The downtown Courthouse was not built to adequately house and preserve so many fragile historical materials.  Stored away in locked rooms, it was difficult for scholars and historians to learn of the collection and to access the materials. Thus, in an effort to better preserve the materials and ensure that more individuals could appreciate their offerings, the CLLA determined to donate the books to UC Law as the CLLA has expanded its 21st-century service to attorneys, judges and public officials.  In March, the thousands of rare books moved to their new home at the law school’s Robert S. Marx Law Library.

            “These books are a gold mine for scholars,” said O’Reilly, who is also a member of the CLLA board. “Some are of great historical importance and will now be linked for interlibrary searches, making them available for researchers, scholars and others all over the world to easily access via the UC libraries data base UCLID.”

            The transfer of the collection was aided by recent Ohio legislation which redirected the oversight of voluntary law library associations into the control of newly-required county law library boards. The Ohio legislature passed statutory changes in 2008 that streamlined county law libraries, reducing the ability to maintain older collections in the revamped county libraries. This was a fortuitous opportunity for UC Law. Cathy Cook, president of the CLLA board, led the efforts over several months. “We had a vote at our membership meeting, and then conferred with state officials, University officials, and the Probate Court to get this transfer in motion. It was important to our legacy that the collection remain here at its home in Cincinnati rather than being scattered and sold”,  said O’Reilly.

            Appraised at $  1.2  million using recent auction prices as a guide, the volumes of books have been moved from  downtown  to the library and integrated throughout the Marx Library’s extensive holdings. In addition, a small selection of foreign and older English materials can be found in the Rare Books Collection. All are catalogued with the UCLID online book search systems so they can be accessed by scholars and others interested in historical topics. “Easier access to this collection will give a boost to scholars interested in American and English legal history,” commented O’Reilly.  Dean Louis Bilionis and other UC representatives accepted the gift at a formal ceremony at the downtown courthouse library in December. The Dean told Association President Cook: “The impact of this gift will be felt for generations.