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Words are the most basic tools of a lawyer, and precise definitions are necessary. The Law Dictionary Collection at the Tarlton Law Library has existed in some form as long as the library itself. In the 1980s Tarlton began systematically collecting law dictionaries to support the Oxford Law Dictionary Project which the Law School was hosting. Many of the dictionaries in this exhibit were acquired at that time. The somewhat decrepit condition of some of the volumes is a testament to the genuine utility of these law dictionaries.
Dictionaries unique to the jurisprudence of the United States arrived relatively late. For the hundreds of years following the initial colonization of the British Colonial North America, the dictionaries lawyers and jurists turned to were those of England. The first legal dictionary published in the United States was a New York 1811 reprint of a late edition of the law dictionary of Giles Jacob published in 1809 in England. This and other reprints of English law in the United States would often contain notes for US lawyers, but they were fundamentally English works. Legal literature in the United States really dates from the decades of the 1820s and 1830s with the publications of work by James Kent, Nathan Dane, and Joseph Story, among others. However, it was not until 1839 that the United States was to have a law dictionary of its own.