Law Library Gains Wisdom

November 1, 1998

Nick Marinello

This is much more than just a bunch of books," says David Combe, Tulane Law School's librarian. Indeed, when the John Minor Wisdom Collection is installed on the sixth floor of John G. Weinmann Hall, it will provide not only insight into the law school's most famous graduate but also into one of the most important eras in modern American history.

Wisdom, who graduated from the law school in 1929, was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957. He soon became known as a tenacious reformer whose landmark opinions helped dismantle segregation in the South. In the early 1980s, Wisdom donated his judicial papers--including manuscripts, notes, memoranda, working drafts of judicial opinions and correspondence related to those opinions--to Tulane Law School.

Late last year Wisdom turned over his personal law library to the school. The entire collection of this material will be archived and housed in a newly created room that will be dedicated on Nov. 20. According to Combe, the more than 2,000 volumes are divided into two general categories: Wisdom's personal working collection that he used in writing his civil rights opinions and a historical law collection that he read for his general education.

"These books are in beautiful condition," said Combe. "One of the things that makes this collection so nice is that the old Civil Law materials have been in one owner's hands for a long time and are not beaten up. "These books have been in good climatic conditions in the judge's downtown office and are very well preserved," said Combe, who notes that the collection contains an original edition of the Code de Napoleon as well as several 18th-century and many 19th-century French and Spanish legal volumes.

Combe believes the value of the collection is much greater than the sum of its parts, however. "The fact that such a collection is assembled in one place adds immeasurably to its value," says Combe, "because if the first task of scholarship is to identify what you are going to research then the second task must be the assembly of its materials."

The collection provides a kind of one-stop shopping for anyone interested in civil rights law or the Louisiana Civil Code, suggests Combe. "If you are going to research something in this area, you know once you are within this collection you will have just about everything you need."

Wisdom, who at 93 still serves as a senior judge for the Fifth Circuit, admits that his best opinions had "a lot of history in them." He would often research his opinions from within his own library. "Oh, I'd research them entirely from my library," said Wisdom. "My collection is broader than the [court's] library."

Wisdom said he considers many of the books in this collection to be his "working tools," and one fascinating aspect of the Wisdom collection is that a number of the books contain the judge's own notes in the margins.

"I tended to do that in a lot of cases," said Wisdom. By annotating a text, a reader "produces something that reflects its value or lack of value," he said.

The Wisdom collection also will allow researchers to peek into the judge's judicial papers. Visiting professor Chris Gobert, who spent several years in the mid-1980s curating and indexing these papers, says the collection presents a rare opportunity to glimpse inside a pre- eminent judicial mind.

"This is the definitive assemblage of Judge Wisdom's work," said Gobert, "and is indeed a remarkable collection in both its breadth and its depth." Gobert also notes that the collection came to Tulane already highly organized, "bearing, as it were, Judge Wisdom's archival imprimatur."

Taken all together, Combe hopes the Wisdom collection spurs interest not only in the judge's own work, but also in the Civil Law and special collections at the Tulane law library.

"This collection is an emergence," said Combe. "At some point you get a collection that is such a reflection of the personality of the owner that you wind up with a collection that has his personality. Something new happens because you can't duplicate this collection. It illuminates the work of our most famous alumnus. And it makes everything he's done more meaningful when you come to study it."

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