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Morris Cohen 1927-2010: A Few Thoughts

Morris Leo Cohen died on Saturday, December 18, 2010. He had recently celebrated his 83rd birthday. More than a few of us call Morris mentor. During his years at Yale, Harvard, Penn and SUNY Buffalo, he attracted disciples with ease and grace. I trust that a round of tributes will follow his passing, but one aspect that may be neglected is the symbolic value of it for librarianship. Morris was the last great scholar bibliographer of his generation in American law librarianship. Not a scholar who stepped into the role of librarian, Morris was a scholarly bibliographer, a man of great learning, who could quote both Samuel Johnson and Ranganathan in the same sentence. Even more important, he was devoted to bibliographic integrity. While a hardy handful of American law librarians continue to pursue lines of scholarly interest, Morris stands for old-style, careful, bibliographic work. His work showed analytical depth combined with elegant style. It was an endeavor that called for intellectual focus and pure sweat equity.

When I first met Morris in 1972, I was a second year law student at Harvard Law School. Sharon Hamby O’Connor, who had been my boss at the undergraduate library, suggested that I meet with him to discuss my very foggy career plans. (Sharon went on to become Law Librarian, Professor and Associate Dean at Boston College Law School, yet another of Morris’s mentees). Inspirational in every possible way, Morris told me to be a law librarian. Looking at him, at his work, and entranced, as so many were, by his sweet manner, he changed my life. I recall that on that day he told me of BEAL, his projected Bibliography of Early American Law. It was an ambitious project, conceived of with Balfour Halevy, that ultimately was designed to prepare a catalog that listed each and every legal imprint in the United States published before 1860. Ideally, Morris would look at each book in person. There were times when he had to settle for a photocopy of the title page, but that was never really satisfying. Though he had stalwart assistants over the years, he wanted as much personal control as possible. He was responsibl;, it was his project.

The project took decades. Morris first told me about it in 1972, it appeared in 1998. It contained 15,000 entries. The level of quality control is staggering. Each of the entries went through one filter: Morris Cohen. The sorting mechanism was his brain, the judgment his own. The size of the project was daunting from the beginning. The fact that in the end one human being stood at its center is, by the lights of 2011, staggering.

There was also the thrill of the hunt. Unearthing an obscure title, finding a variant printing, these were delights for Morris. There was a healthy measure of detective work in BEAL. He knew that when he finished it would be a complete record and that it would be done correctly. (Morris conceded that as time passed other titles would inevitably turn up, they always do, but it would not be for want of his trying.) Morris’s gift for writing pellucid prose was the whipped cream on top of the sundae.

This form of information verification is a shining artifact of the past. As bots and spiders crawl across the web pulling in data and compiling it, as Google scans and organizes the books of the world by algorithm and we fight about metadata, the thought of one man personally examining and verifying each item in a data base of this size approaches the level of science fiction. Nor was this man following a set of outlined instructions or taking advantage of existing work product. Morris Cohen could be as creative as needed. It was an intellectual exercise.

I will miss Morris for his wisdom, his humor and his friendship. But I also miss the world in which BEAL was possible, when humans with deep expertise used judgment to assess and to verify information. The scholar in the stacks holding the actual copy of the book in hand, compiling a great, comprehensive bibliography has evolved into a good search string made across the correct data bases. We will not see his like, or BEAL’s like again. I miss Morris and I miss the information world in which he worked.

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Comments

  1. There is also a Canadian connection, since one of Morris’ key collaborators was Balfour Halévy who built the York University Law Library collection. In a recent newsletter from Pennsylvania, here is a delightful interview with Morris and some pictures of him a few other of Les immortelles such as Roy Mersky and Balfour himself.

    Now Balfour stands by himself

    Here is Morris in a typical pose, backed by books.

    Morris