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Religion Collections in Libraries and Archives: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia

Library of Congress: Law Library

Introductory Information

Library of Congress:
Law Library
Law Library Rare Book Collection

Address: 101 Independence Ave SE, James Madison Building, Room LM242, Washington, DC 20540-3129

Telephone number: 202-707-5079

Contact information

Online catalog

Digital Collections link

Access Policies

Hours of service

Open to the public: Yes

Interlibrary loan: Yes

Reference policy: Reference requests are accepted by: Ask-a-Librarian form, chat, telephone, email, in-person.
A staff of American trained lawyers and law librarians provide legal and legislative reference service to readers and give bibliographic assistance in the use of the Law Library collection and the use of the card and online catalogs. Foreign, international, and comparative legal reference assistance may be obtained from the reference staff. Reference questions are accepted from researchers who have exhausted their research in local public, county, state, regional, and government depository libraries. The Law Library should be considered a "library of last resort"

A Library of Congress Reader Registration card is required to use Library of Congress reading rooms. To obtain a registration card, applicants must be 16 years of age or older and present photo identification bearing a verifiable permanent address. Please see Reader Registration and Access to Library of Congress Reading Rooms for more information.

Background note:
The U.S. Congress established the Law Library as a separate department of the Library of Congress in 1832. Its collection of legal materials is the largest and most comprehensive in the world, covering all of the approximately 260 nations and dependencies as well as many former nations and colonies. Members of the Law Library staff, recruited from more than 30 countries, are fluent in approximately 40 languages, and are familiar with a variety of national legal systems and international law as well as such specialized fields as Islamic, Hebraic, and canon law.


Books and monographs
The Law Library contains Canon and Ecclesiastical law as well as materials that relate more tangentially to religion such as particular trials and legal issues. Because the focus of the collection is not religion the amount of material is difficult to determine. Even so, materials in this area are large enough to support serious research in the area of religion.

One of the largest collections in the Law Library is the Canon Law collection, 98% of which deals with the laws of the Roman Catholic Church; the other two percent deals with the laws of the English and Scottish Church. The most extensive amount of material in this collection spans the 17th and 18th centuries.

Gratian, an Italian monk of the 12th century, attempted to eliminate the contradictions and disorganization of early canon law by coordinating it into what became known as the Decretum Gratiani (ca.1140). This compilation dominated the norms for the laws of the Catholic Church until 1917. The Law Library has many copies of this work, a good number of them rare and famous, rich in prints with fine or unusual bindings.

From 1314-1437 a series of works, lastly to be called the Corpus Juris Canonici, was created to complete the previous compilations. This work was expanded by two collections published in 1500 by Jean Chappuis. These later collections are known as the Extravagantes. The Library owns many editions of the Corpus Juris Canonici and two editions of the Extravagantes.

Later, another revision and compilation became necessary. This was completed in 1917 by Benedict XV and was called the Codex Juris Canonici. At this time Pope Benedict also created a Pontifical Commission to work on any amendments, clarification or additions to the canon. The responses of this commission were published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, or the official gazette. These responses have legislative authority along with the Codex.

Pope Saint John Paul II approved a new code in 1983. The Law Library has a copy of this work signed by the Pope.

There are approximately 270 Canon law books printed before 1501. The largest portion is the Decretum Gratiani. The other portions are Decretales or elaborations and commentary on the original Decretum Gratiani. Some of these items are in the Law Library Rare Book Reading Room, while most can be found in the Rare Book Reading Room in the Jefferson Building.

The Law Library of Congress does not have a Canon Law attorney in staff. However, we do have specialists who can provide general guidelines on Canon Law to interested researchers.

The Law Library collection of materials on the Russian Orthodox Church, most printed in the 19th century, deal with the governance of the church, some ecclesiastical trials and a small amount on the Armenian Church. Earlier works include many rare copies of Kormchaia Kniga or Pilot Book, a canonical compendium. The Law Library collections also include Peter I's public law on the ecclesiastical administration of the Russian Church, composed by Feofan, Bishop of Pskov (later Archbishop of Novgorod), first published in St. Petersburg in 1721.

The Law Library contains a significant amount of material in the area of Islamic law and legal opinions of Muslim Jurists. These materials are in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu languages. The collection includes both classical sources and references authored by contemporary Muslim scholars. The collection also contains history and analysis of Islamic law by leading 19th-century European experts. Additionally, the collection encompasses references concerning main schools of jurisprudence pertaining to Shi'i and Sunni sects of Islam. Those schools of jurisprudence are the Jaafari shi'i school of thought, the Hanbali, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanafi Sunni schools. Finally, Law Library of Congress's collection contains all necessary references addressing rules of Muamalat (transactions) under primary and secondary sources of Islamic Law.

Also of interest are trials for heresy and witchcraft from England and to a smaller extent, the colonial United States. Many of the heresy trials are part of the canon law collection. Some of these are illustrated. Of particular note in the non-canonical collection is A Complete Collection of the State Tryals of Persons For High-Treason, Murder, Rapes, Bigamy, Parricide, Sodamy {sic}, Burglary, Bills of Attainer, Impeachments, etc. That Have Been in England From The Reign of Richard II to This Perfect Time, a two-volume set published in 1736-1737.

As might be expected, one may find current and historical materials dealing with church and state issues such as prayer in school and right to religion in the texts of court opinions and, if the case proceeded to the Supreme Court, the records and briefs of such cases. The Serial Set, Hearings, and Congressional Record and its antecedents contain information on the above topics as well as the Mormon wars, freedom of religion, and the establishment of religion in the District of Columbia to name a few areas.

Canon law materials are often, but not always found in the card or computer catalogs.

Specific court opinions and court records are often found in publications called reporters or reports which are in the Law Library’s collections. Many of these decisions are also available online. The Law Library has published a research guide on How to Find Free Case Law Online. The Constitution Annotated also provides links to Supreme Court decisions on religion in the United States. Records for specific trials may be found in the catalog or may be available through one of the Library’s subscription databases. When looking for a specific case, patrons can always contact the Law Library’s reference staff for help.

Periodicals and newspapers
This collection contains some materials in the areas on Canon Law, Russian Orthodox religion, church and state, freedom of religion, and journals looking at the relationship between law and religion. Most journals in this collection do not deal specifically with religion, but do contain articles on these topics and others.

Databases and/or electronic resources

Digital collections

Subject Headings

Canon law; Heresy--Trials; Islamic law; Religion--England--History; Religion--United States--History; Religion and state; Religious liberty; Russian Orthodox Church; Witchcraft—Trials