Middle Temple is one of the four Inns of Court in London, for lawyers (barristers) who practice in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different systems). The four Inns are Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and Grays Inn. Each Inn has a Royal sponsor or two (Prince Williams represents Middle Temple), and it is law that a barrister must join one of the Inns upon passing the bar exam, inheriting a free stable of paralegals, a dining hall, and most important, a library dedicated to their needs.
There are eight on staff, and are open to accommodate barristers’ busy schedules on Saturday and by rota (rotating schedule) on Sunday. The library is contained in four floors and two basements, rare books room has temperature and humidity control, rolling stocks. The four libraries of the inns work together to reduce duplication.
Middle Temple in particular specializes in American-related law books connection because of previous colonization schemes. Five of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were “Middle Templars,” according to a pamphlet on the United States Collection, while a whopping 39 signed the U.S. Constitution. Also important: We learned that law libraries tend to pay relatively well.
Our group met with Renae, who was very forthcoming and generous with her time and information. Hailing from Canada, Renae is surprisingly the first rare books librarian the library has employed, though the library certainly has its share. She explained that it was founded in 1641 upon a donation by Inn member Robert Ashley, and that it remains a working law library, although in its earlier years the collection was not necessarily focused solely on law books. The continuing citation of cases from the 17th century prove the need for it, she noted.
She took us to the high-ceilinged banquet hall of the Inn itself and laid out Middle Temple’s eclectic history; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed at Middle Temple, and one of his King John plays has a scene at an Inn — either Middle Temple or Inner Temple (Psst, it was Middle!). Renae pointed out that this was actually a rather natural progression — after all, lawyers by nature are performers, and what is law but performance art?
The library holds some interesting items not related to the law, like a pair of globes, one of land and one of space, by famous globe-maker Emery Molyneux, a 16th century mathematician, the earliest globes in existence. The library holds two of the six known artifacts.
The Rare Book collection is based on the bequest of Robert Ashley, who founded the library in a sense when he died in 1641 and bequeathed his personal holdings to the Inn. Ashley was a man of varied interests, and the first books of the library were not all law books, reflecting Ashley’s interests of alchemy, magic and the occult, especially Rosicrucian practices. Today the library holds 250,000 items, with a strong source of American law resources, as befits its history.
One non-legal book that holds pride of place is one by Pierre Belon from 1555, L’historie de la Nature des Oysequx. From the library’s Rare Books pamphlet: “This is a book on birds and other flying animals lavishly illustrated with multiple woodcuts.”
In previous centuries, Renae explained that the law was more of a day to day thing, more people were touched by law, through lawsuits and the like over land claims. It’s possible Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law evident in his plays came from just intelligent observation. Author Charles Dickens wrote an amusing letter asking for his money back from his time at law school here. The author worked briefly as a law clerk, which is where he may have gathered material for one of his greatest novels, Bleak House, whose sprawling tale revolves around the most famous fictional court case in literature, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.
Middle Temple Library was another expectation-defying trip — not just dusty law tomes (though there were plenty of those both in print and online) but unique items coming from out of nowhere to compel attention.