Legally Speaking: Book 'em, Dano

John G. Browning Feb. 27, 2012, 5:58am

I recently moved offices, and as I was lugging boxes of old law books, the thought struck me—why? Why was I holding onto these dusty tomes and treatises when, like most of the lawyers currently practicing, 99 percent of the legal research I do is done on the computer?

I look up cases and statutes by accessing legal databases like Westlaw and LexisNexis, and whether I'm filing a pleading in state or federal court, chances are I'm doing that electronically as well.

And, in this digital age of having information at one's fingertips at all times instantaneously, there seems to be "an app for that" as well; all kinds of legal research resources, including Black's Law Dictionary, are accessible via a smartphone application.

So, in the age of the wired lawyer, what are lawyers and law firms doing with those obsolete law books? A number of law offices have made better use of their once impressive law libraries, converting them to more useable space for offices and conference rooms. As for the books themselves—well, let's just say that all kinds of clever uses have been found for them.

Many are quite practical. Laura Orr at Oregon Legal Research offers tips in a guide entitled "How to Dispose of Used Law Books." It demonstrates how old law books have been turned into everything from picture frames to lamps to (appropriately enough) bookshelves and bookcases.

Berkeley, Calif.-based artist and furniture designer Jim Rosenau has been using vintage law books to make thematic "book furniture" since 2002. His custom bookshelves, bookcases, tables, chairs, and sculptures have been exhibited in galleries throughout the U.S. and can be found in private collections in 50 states and countries. Rosenau finds the raw materials for his art from library discards, recycling centers and donations.

On the Library Science blog, I saw photos of an art gallery that displayed yet another creative use for old law books—flooring. It took several thousand volumes of regional reporters (or at least their spines), but the impressive law book flooring final product looks like the perfect touch for the office of a retired attorney or judge.

Meanwhile, Kathy Kelly, a law librarian in Erie, Penn., has turned her recycling efforts into a thriving side business. Her line of purses and laptop computer cases, known as "BookBags," uses the covers of outdated legal volumes.

Each bag is created individually and, depending on size and the complexity of craftsmanship, can cost anywhere from $125 to $350.

There is also a cottage industry that has sprung up to repurpose old law books by hollowing them out to create a secret compartment for a flask of your favorite alcohol. Companies like Secret Storage and Bender Bound will give customers a discreet way to keep alcohol in their office, using handmade glass flasks imported from Italy that fit snugly into a carved-out compartment in a vintage legal volume; Bender Bound's concealable flasks cost about $99 (liquor not included).

There are even more visually impressive uses for old law books. At the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, for example, the Ex Libris bookstore on campus features reclaimed industrial space, with structural pillars that are covered with dozens of sets of recycled, outdated law reporters.

And, if you want to see a truly impressive sight, visit the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. On display there is the "Tower of Law," a series of tall, spiraling stacks of law books stretching to the ceiling of the museum like legally-inspired versions of a DNA double helix molecule.

However, behind this striking piece of artwork is an important and powerful message. Visitors reading the rail of this exhibit learn the story of Clarence Gideon, the petty thief behind one of the Supreme Court's landmark decisions.

Educating himself with the volumes from the prison law library and writing his briefs on prison stationery, Gideon petitioned for a new trial maintaining that he had been denied his right to an attorney under the Sixth Amendment. Gideon's victory at the high court paved the way for the court-appointed lawyers in criminal cases as a matter of right.

When you look at an exhibit like the Tower of Law, you get a sense of the enormity of the body of knowledge that lawyers gain over years of intense study and practice.

Reading the story of Clarence Gideon (also immortalized in the book Gideon's Trumpet by Anthony Lewis and in a movie of the same name starring Henry Fonda), one realizes how daunting it must have been for accused individuals to enter a courtroom and try to defend themselves.

Viewing the ceiling-high stacks of old law volumes is a powerful reminder of what it takes to have a level playing field for everyone as we strive to provide a fair and impartial system of "justice for all."

I can't think of a better use for old law books.

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