The UC Berkeley law school started its existence as the University of California Department of Jurisprudence in 1894. The new department was allotted a grand total of one classroom and one office in the already crowded North Hall, so when the question of establishing a collection to support law faculty and students arose, space had to be found elsewhere. The situation wasn’t much better in the equally crowded university library until the enterprising chairman of the law department, William Carey Jones, convinced the University to relinquish its wine cellar (!), conveniently located in the basement of the library building, to make room for the law library. Funds were however insufficient to hire a law librarian, so the collection was mostly left to the student’s own devices, who took such good care of it that books had to be chained to the tables to prevent them from disappearing. This dire situation was remediated in 1900 when Jane K. Sather donated money to support the law collection, which was renamed the Sather Law Library in her honour.
Unfortunately, her name only graced the collection for a short decade until it moved to the law school’s first purpose-built hall in 1912. Designed by campus architect John Galen Howard, that building (present-day Durant Hall) was erected partly thanks to a donation by Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt in memory of her husband, attorney John Henry Boalt. Consequently, the edifice was named Boalt Hall, a name that became synonymous with the law school until January of 2020 when the Boalt name was dropped on account of its namesake’s racist past. The library also followed the department in its move, sadly losing the Sather name but gaining its first purpose-built space and beautiful furniture, including handsome custom-made tables that are still in use in the basement of the current law library. Given that these library tables and chairs reportedly consumed a full quarter of the whole furnishings budget (and missed the inauguration by a full year), it seems only fitting that they would outlast many of the students who used them.
The law school’s third (and for now, final) move occurred in 1951, when it moved into a much larger building designed by Warren C. Perry. The new larger location was in response of a significant increase in enrollment following the end of World War II. Perry’s new Boalt Hall (the now ill-fated name followed the law school when it moved to its new abode) marked the classically-trained architect’s transition to the modern movement. Nowhere in the building is this more evident than in the main reading room, which a 2006 renovation by More Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners brought back to its midcentury modern glory. Rather than trying to replicate the original perfectly, they opted for custom contemporary furniture that still pay more than a passing homage to midcentury design.
As enrollment grew, so did the library collections, which as of 2020 contain close to 875,000 volumes . New space for the library was obtained in all subsequent expansions. In 1958-59, Perry collaborated with Anderson, Simonds, Dusel and Campani to add a new library wing. The library also gained space when Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons expanded the hall in 1965-76, and again in 1995-96 as part of the North addition by Crodd Chin of the Ratcliff Architects, which now hosts the Robbins Collection.
The same Ratcliff Architects were also tasked with the hall’s most recent addition, a 55,000 square foot extension to the law library opened in 2011. This new wing is almost entirely underground, filling in the south courtyard. Far from being the gloomy basement space of the library’s 1890s beginnings, this one is a light-filled wonder thanks to a generous glass covered light well connecting the addition to the original Perry building. Bridging old with new and ingenuously connecting inside and outside spaces, the glass expense covers two bright symmetrical reading rooms, separated by the grand entrance staircase. The library’s interior spaces are covered in warm materials, alternating between white Indiana sandstone and variegated cedar panels, creating a welcoming atmosphere and a more than fitting surroundings for John Galen Howard’s century-old original furniture.
- UC Berkeley Library. UC Berkeley Campus Research Guide: Architecture
- Helfand, Harvey (2002). University of California, Berkeley: an architectural tour and photographs.
- UC Berkeley Library. Roma Pacifica: The Phoebe Hearst International Architectural Competition & the Berkeley Campus, 1896-1930. Online Exhibition, December 1999-April 2000.
- Benemann, William (2010). The Birth of the Law Library. Ask the Archivist, July 19, 2010.
- Benemann, William (2010). Tables (Re)Turned. Ask the Archivist, August 20, 2010.
- Benemann, William (2011). Ask the Archivist: Every Table Tells a Story. Ask the Archivist, November 11, 2011.
- Kell, Gretchen (2020). UC Berkeley removes racist John Boalt’s name from law school. Berkeley News, January 30, 2020
- More Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners. Main Reading Room, Boalt Hall Library
- Berkeley Law (2006). Main Reading Room Returns to its Past Splendor
- Schaper, Louise (2012). New Landmark Libraries 2012 #2: Berkeley Law Library, University of California, Berkeley. Library Journal, June 28, 2012.
- Ratcliff Architects. UC Berkeley School of Law
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!