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Treasures from the Trunk

Heart of the Law School : Houston and Its Academic Law Libraries

by Christopher Anglim

This series, which covers the history of Houston’s three academic law libraries, now looks at the O’Quinn Law Library at University of Houston (opened since 1947).

The O'Quinn Law Library at the University of Houston

Created in 1947, the University of Houston (U of H) Law School first operated out of two World War II barracks at the north end of the University campus. The school began with two classrooms, one office, and library space approximately the size of a classroom. A.A. White, the first law school’s first dean and W. Lewis Roberts, the law school’s first faculty member, shelved the original library before classes began in September 1947. Mabel Smith, became U of H's first law librarian in 1949 and served in that capacity until 1966.

The M.D. Anderson Library was built in the fall of 1950. Both the law school and the law library were housed in the basement of the M.D. Anderson Library from 1951 to 1969. The library had chronic space problems. In 1957, Mrs. Smith reported that, "students with renewed enthusiasm have filled our reading room to a brimming capacity. We are running out of studying area." The library apparently had few security problems. Under the library's "honor system", Mrs. Smith reported in 1951-1952 that there was little book loss or damage. She added that, "It is gratifying to observe youth developing self-discipline and a high standard of professional ethics under the stress and strain of heavy assignments and law examinations." Between 1950 and 1963, student enrollment and the size of the library tripled, while the size of the faculty doubled. The collection grew largely due to gifts and exchanges.

The law library badly needed new housing. Lolly Gasaway recalls that, "the old facility was dark and depressing and very crowded. There were books in all the hallways, the collection was split everywhere and it was very hard to locate materials and people. There was no real public service area." Shortly after the library had moved into M.D. Anderson, there were proposals to move the law school to a "downtown building." These proposals did not prevail because of cost concerns. The U of H conducted an extensive self-study of the law school, which called for a larger law library and called for the creation of a legal center for Houston, which would be the "hub of legal activity for the state."

The U of H chose Al Coco as director of the law library to reach these ambitious goals in 1966. He was the law library’s only professional librarian. The library had a small staff and could offer minimal services. Starting from the basement of the M.D. Anderson library, Coco hired personnel, expanded the collection, and obtained a new building. Coco applied for every grant the law library could possibly qualify for. Federal and state grants greatly enhanced library service. Coco hired a young and energetic staff composed of librarians such as Pat Kehoe and Laura (Lolly) Gasaway. Between 1967 and 1969, The U of H constructed a new four-unit law complex known as the University of Houston Law Center on the Northeast corner of the University campus. Originally called the Bates College of Law Building, it was named for Houston attorney Col. William B. Bates. The building was formally dedicated in April 1970. The law school has expanded since that time, but remains at the same location. The design was called the "Houston Satellite Plan" and included an underground research library. The law library was opened as a two-story underground facility, which was reached by stairs in the middle of a large plaza which also served as the library’s roof. At the time, the facility was regarded as the most advanced law school structure in the nation. The building proved to be a successful experiment, with great design flexibility in order to meet future needs.

The law library moved into its new quarters shortly before the 1969 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) was held in Houston. The U of H librarians led the efforts in planning and implementing all the local arrangements for the convention.

Laura Gasaway, succeeded Coco and was library director between 1973 and 1975. She worked to complete cataloging and classifying the collection into LC order, developed the collection, improved reference, improved library management, and worked on technology issues.

Professor Jon Schultz, became Director of Law Library in 1975, with a dual appointment as Professor of Law and Professor of Libraries. With 22 years at the helm, he is the longest tenured director of the law library. During Professor Schultz’s tenure, the library’s collection had grown by three and half times its 1975 size.

By the early 1980s, the library underwent another major renovation, which added a multimedia facility. It also gained an additional 25,000 square feet through a new lower level in September 1985. The expansion greatly facilitated the library’s ability to meet user needs and to house its collections.

Technology has long played a major supporting role at the U of H. In 1974-1975, it went on OCLC. In 1976-77, the U of H joined the Amigos Bibliographic Network. In 1977-78, the law school installed an OCLC terminal. In 1983, the library received its GEAC's online catalog, becoming the first law library in the country to use GEAC for its cataloging. The law library replaced GEAC with Innopac/Innovacq in March 1996. It also increasingly focused its attention on computer-assisted legal research.

In 1976, the library became the first Texas library to offer electronic legal research facilities (LEXIS), and in 1986, it became the first to offer competing systems by having both LEXIS and WESTLAW in its newly completed Computer Learning Center. In 1977, reference librarian, Bob Grundy, became the nation’s first instructor to offer a separate credit course in electronic legal research. By the mid-1980s, the library was consistently one of the ten largest users of electronic legal information among law school libraries. By 1996, the Law Center had established a large student computer network and it was necessary to coordinate the growth and administration of the legal information in the library with management information and computer support for the students and staff of the Law Center. Professor Schultz was appointed Associate Dean of the Law Center for Information Technology, a job that includes directing the library and administering technology throughout the Law Center. The library continues its leadership in technology by being an innovator in web technology.

In the early 1980s, the U of H created a separate and international law library headed by Julius Szentendrey, formerly of the international law library at the Harvard Law School. He developed collections in Islamic Law and began work with Mexican materials. Szentendrey was succeeded in the mid-1980s by Dan Wade, formerly from Vanderbilt, who continued developing the Mexican collection and began the practice of periodic travel to Mexico to acquire materials for the collection. In 1987, he was succeeded by Earl Weisbaum, a specialist in Mexican legal research and former head of the Los Angeles County Law Library, who served at the U of H law library until his death in 1990. The foreign and international law collection is best known for its collections in contemporary Mexican law and international law.

The John R. Brown Admiralty and Maritime Collection was established in 1991 by students, alumni, and the admiralty bar as a tribute to Senior Judge John R. Brown of the Fifth Circuit.

Upon his death, his papers were sought by several libraries, but were deposited with the U of H, where they have been processed, indexed, and made available on the library’s web site as the only such searchable judicial archive.

The law library’s future appears to be particularly promising after John Maurice O'Quinn, a a 1967 graduate of the college and a legendary plaintiff's personal injury attorney, donated $4 million to the Law Center in 1992 for library renovations and expansion, which were undertaken to provide upgraded study areas, public areas, staff offices, and technological support. The law library was the "O'Quinn Library" dedicated in his name on May 26, 1996.

Four librarians, formerly working at U of H, have become presidents of AALL (Al Coco, Lolly Gasaway, Al Brecht, and Pat Kehoe). No other library has supplied more AALL presidents. Directors and staff from the library have become directors of 17 major accredited law school libraries and many other private and bar association libraries. In addition, the library staff alumni include Texas Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez, and more recently, the nation’s youngest sitting federal judge, Vanessa Gilmore.

    © 2000-2021 Houston Area Law Librarians (HALL) is a 501(c)6 non-profit corporation.  HALL (P.O. Box 61643, Houston, TX 77208-1643) is a chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries.

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