See Also Why is the Social Law Library not Open to the Public Generally?


There were virtually no American law books in existence and no published decisions from any American court when the Social Law Library was established in 1803. We are the oldest law library in the United States and one of the oldest civic and cultural organizations in Boston. 

We Pre-Date Many Boston Institutions

The Social Law Library is one of Boston’s oldest civic and cultural organizations, pre-dating the Boston Athenaeum by three years, the Boston Public Library by forty-four years, the Museum of Fine Arts by sixty-six years, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra by eighty-seven years.

The 1800s also saw the founding of three other social libraries – a medical library in 1805 (subsequently The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, now the Boston Medical Library of the Massachusetts Medical Society); an insurance library in 1887 (The Insurance Library Association of Boston, located on State Street); and an engineering library.

Supreme Judicial Court “Invitation” to Share Space

Having no significant collections of its own, the Court invited the Library to take a small “apartment” within the courthouse in exchange for the use of its collection. Since that time, through all of the Court’s relocations, the Library has relocated with it. Learn more about the historical renovation of the John Adams Courthouse here

The relationship was a natural. Many of the great leaders of the Massachusetts Court were Library Proprietors, among them Theophilus Parsons, Lemuel Shaw, Horace Gray, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. – chief justices all. Their respect for and reliance on the Library was complete. It is not surprising that the chief justices appointed men from within the ranks of the Social Law Proprietors as Reporters of Decisions. Five of the first six of the well-known reporters of the Supreme Judicial Court – Tyng, Pickering, Metcalf, Gray, and Allen – were Proprietors of the Library. One of these men was also President of the Library (Dudley Atkins Tyng, 1809-1817) and two were Trustees (Octavius Pickering, 1821-1825; Horace Gray, Jr., 1856-1864). Thus, the collection developed in response to the needs of both the bench and the bar.

SLL’s Founding: Debate and “final arguments”

Mocked by the Jeffersonian Democrats in the partisan press – and praised in Federalist newspapers – early nineteenth century newspapers in the Library’s archives show how its founding was caught up in an intense public struggle about the country’s legal system. Both locally and nationally, the struggle centered on whether the new nation would “receive” the English common law (hated by the Jeffersonians) or rely on the legislative codes (like the Napoleonic code actively promoted by Jeffersonians). Nationally, President Jefferson was purging “Federalist” judges from the federal bench in the wake of the so-called “midnight judges” scandal. But locally, prominent Federalists founded the Social Law Library and aggressively began importing English law books. The bar suddenly had books to research the law, but the bench did not. In return for the use of the collection, the Supreme Judicial Court invited the Library into quarters at the courthouse in 1803. In that same year, the Massachusetts legislature created the Reporter of Decisions office – the first official reporter in the United States.

Taken together, these developments ensured that the English common law would be adopted in America. Relying on the Social Law Library’s imported English materials, Massachusetts lawyers argued – and the Supreme Judicial Court adapted – English common law precedents to fit American conditions. And, as newer states needed law, they naturally looked to the Massachusetts Reports as the leading authority for homegrown law. In this way, the Americanized common law spread throughout the country (except, of course, in Louisiana). 

SLL Pioneers Successful private/public leadership

A Two-Century Old Public/Private Partnership Vital and Relevant Today
When the Supreme Judicial Court invited the Library to share space in the courthouse it may have created one of the most successful and enduring “private/public” partnerships in the history of Massachusetts government. Notwithstanding its public mandate, the Social Law Library receives nearly 60% of its revenue from private sources. Indeed, no other government library in the United States receives private funding in any amount.

The Library’s name derives from its incorporation in 1814 as a “social” library, a term used to identify it as an institution that provided the Commonwealth a “social good.” It was the legislative method that avoided taxing citizens by incorporating and empowering a private group to collect user fees and to conduct essentially “public services.” Established in 1803 to serve the intellectual requirements of the practicing bar, its act of incorporation ten years later formalizes it as an institution created to serve the research needs of all branches of Massachusetts state government as well.

Today, the Social Law Library is the Commonwealth’s premier law library relied on by all of Massachusetts government. There is a truly remarkable level of governmental reliance on resources of this “private” institution. The service the Library has historically provided to the Supreme Judicial Court is well known. Today, it provides services to all Massachusetts judges in every corner of the Commonwealth. Documented usage statistics demonstrate that not only the judiciary, but also the legislative and executive branches use the Social Law Library on a daily basis.

Indeed, although a “private” institution, the Social Law Library provides vital legal research services that inform the three coordinate branches of the Commonwealth’s government in fulfilling their respective “public” mandates under the constitution.

In addition to extending courtesy memberships to organizations that represent the state’s indigent, the Library provides free services to organizations, both liberal and conservative, that assist the disabled, protect the environment, safeguard the interests of children and families, promote excellence in public schools, advocate for civil and consumer rights, counsel those impaired by substance abuse, and promote community development and historic preservation.

The Library also boasts a membership of more than 9,000 lawyers from law firms and corporate law departments in the metropolitan Boston area and more than 1,200 solo and small-firm lawyers who practice outside Boston.

Unique, Innovative, Enduring – A Cornerstone of the Administration of Justice

Ours is, as John Adams declared in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, “a government of laws and not of men.” The Social Law Library was organized in 1803 to help make real John Adams’s vision that legal principles should govern the citizens of the Commonwealth.