Reporters may contact: Meredith Dickenson
SMU News and Information
(214) 768-7654

March 12, 2001


DALLAS (SMU) -- With its more than 5,000 rare and historical legal materials, the Rare Book Collection in Southern Methodist University's Underwood Law Library is a testament to the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention.

Joseph McKnight, an SMU Dedman School of Law legal historian whose professional specialty is Texas family law, began collecting old law books to satisfy his need for sources of European and American legal history, especially his interest in tracing the Spanish-colonial origins of the state's family and inheritance laws.

"I have accumulated books because I need the books for my research and libraries are reluctant to lend antiquarian books to the general public," McKnight says. "One is forced to acquire them or to travel long distances to use them."

Few libraries have a collection as extensive as McKnight's. He has been acquiring old law books for more than 50 years, purchasing his first when he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in 1948. Today his collection, which is shelved on the fourth floor of the Underwood Law Library, has grown to include several thousand rare and historical legal materials, with the oldest book, a German legal formbook, dating back to 1505. The collection includes legal and historical treatises, statutes, court decisions and books on legal customs.

For his convenience and that of others, McKnight's collection is housed in the law library's rare book room. Designed with the needs of scholars in mind, the large, airy room is anchored by a long conference table and flanked by rows of old books organized by national origin: American and British, Italian, German and the Low Countries, French, Spanish and Portuguese law. Scholars may make an appointment to spend time in the room, often with the assistance of McKnight who knows every book in the collection. On the shelves are such legal classics as four volumes of Sir William Blackstone's last corrected edition of his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1778), Sir Edward Coke's third and last editon of his Institutes of the Laws of England (1633) and a full set of the Justinian Compilation of Laws, the collection with later annotations compiled during the rule of the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian I. The Justinian Code is the basis of much of Continental law and the structure of American law as well.

McKnight acquires books for content, not for rarity, but he is particularly interested in books from the 16th century. He says law publishing hit its stride about 1540. From 1500 to 1540 was a transition period when books still maintained the manuscript form but were printed.

"From about 1540, printing technology had a tremendous impact on the development of law," McKnight says. "With better technology came cheaper printing and suddenly the law became more accessible to anyone who could read.

"There was a greater consciousness among more and more people of the importance of law to their daily lives. The historical and social significance of this growing understanding of law interests me as a historian, and therefore books from that period and before -- when printing was still a nascent technology -- are important to understand," McKnight says.

While other law libraries may have a small collection of rare books, Gail M. Daly, associate dean for library and technology and director of the Underwood Law Library, says the collection is significant because of McKnight's involvement. More than a show piece, the rare book room is used by SMU Dedman School of Law professors and students in their research, which enhances both scholarship and teaching at SMU.

"Joseph McKnight's stewardship ensures coherence in developing the collection, identifying items that would complement the existing material, and then hunting them down," Daly says. "He gives constant care and attention to every item in the collection."

In fact, McKnight personally does the restoration of many of the books he finds. Fifteen years ago he learned the art of bookbinding as a form of relaxation soon after an operation for cancer. The antique books must be cleaned and their spines and boards restored. Then the books are mended or rebound with parchment, leather, cloth or paper binding. He carefully traces the original lettering on the book cover and spine and restores the tracings to the finished book.

In addition to attorneys, law professors and law students, historians find the collection useful to their research as well. Clive Siegle, an SMU Ph.D. candidate in American history, is interested in buffalo hunters who roamed West Texas and New Mexico in the 18th and 19th centuries. He has used McKnight's collection to research Spanish-colonial livestock and hunting laws.

"A number of these books are nearly 500 years old yet still in remarkable condition," Siegle says. "We live in a paper-back book age in which books are considered a disposable item, but these texts stand as a loving tribute to the durability of the written word. It is a pretty amazing collection."

Appointments are necessary to use the collection and may be made by contacting McKnight or a member of the Underwood Law Library staff at 214-768-1661.