Picturing the Law: Visual Culture and Legal Publishing
Featuring: Michael Widener, Rare Book Librarian, from the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School
“Illustrated law books” may seem like an oxymoron. After all, law is conceptual, analytic, and—wordy. Yet the object of law is human life, and its practitioners mediate between abstract rules and the real world of people and things. This tension has given rise to a surprising figurative impulse in legal literature—to law’s picture books.
Rare book librarian Michael Widener has sought over the past decade to develop an extraordinary collection of these illustrated law books at the Yale Law School. A major exhibition of the collection, entitled “Law’s Picture Books,” is currently on display at the Grolier Club in New York City and an exhibit catalog is widely available. As a collector based in a university, Mike’s goal has been to foster curiosity and experiment. Over the past decade, he has created a unique resource for researchers in a variety of academic fields, exposing a tradition many bibliophiles—and lawyers—are unaware of.
In his talk, Michael Widener will discuss the exhibition and explore the tradition of illustrating the law in books from the Middle Ages to the present day. These books were published for many audiences, including legal professionals, law students, and lay readers; functionally, they served to symbolize, depict, teach, and beautify the law. Special attention will be paid to Italian books in order to highlight the University of Illinois’ incredible holdings of Italian imprints in the Cavagna Collection in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Mike Widener has been the Rare Book Librarian at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, since 2006. He is also on the faculty of the Rare Book School, University of Virginia, where he has taught the course “Law Books: History and Connoisseurship” since 2010.