Wolf Law Library Launches Oral History Project at William & Mary Law School

An Oral History Project at William & Mary Law School is providing new perspectives on the rich background of America’s First Law School.

Since last year, staff and students in the Wolf Law Library have been working to gather and archive oral histories from various members of the law school community who have helped shape today’s institution.

According to Kathryn Downing, Digital Collections & Archives Librarian and project coordinator, the project places special emphasis on peoples who have been historically marginalized and overlooked.

“For a school with a history that begins as the first law program of the nation, our story is not very comprehensively documented,” Downing said. “The result of this project is a rich collection of stories that help us connect with our history on a very human level. “

In its capacity as institutional repository for the Law School, the Law Library is supporting Dean A. Benjamin Spencer’s mission to create a more inclusive community by gathering the oral histories of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

“I was in awe of each of these people’s stories, so very different yet with so many similar threads running through them,” Downing said. “There is an incredible dedication to their studies and work, a steadfastness to do what needs to be done, and a strong desire for justice in every sense of the word.”

Working closely with library staff, law students play an integral role in the project’s success. They conduct extensive research and finalize interview questions and ensure that the eventual oral history is audio/video recorded in William & Mary’s Media Center on main campus.

In addition to recording fascinating stories, students find themselves developing relationships and networking with the people they interview. They also receive recommendations of other people to interview. Interviewees have even donated items related to law school history to the law library’s archives.

Aidan Rossman ’25, for example, gathered information on women in the Law School’s history and was first assigned to research and interview Judy Conti ’94. Rossman is a member of the Women’s Law Society, which Conti had helped revive when she was a 1L. They were able to connect over a shared interest in public service and identity as women in law.

Conti then recommended that Rossman interview Jayne Barnard, James Cutler Professor of Law, Emerita, who was faculty advisor for the founding of the Journal of Women and the Law. In addition to sharing her history, Barnard donated her John Marshall Award to the library. The award recognizes exceptional service, and Barnard was the first person (regardless of gender) to receive it.

Downing said that Conti’s and Barnard’s oral histories fill in gaps in the documented history of women in the Law School, as well as provide additional areas of investigation for future interviews and new exhibitions.

“One of the topics pitched for a future exhibit is the history of women at William & Mary Law School,” Downing said, “The information and artifacts we now have to illustrate this topic will make for a more informative and dynamic exhibit.”

The first wave of oral histories is now available to stream through the Scholarship Repository, and students are working to gather more with support from members of the library team.