Centennial Digital Exhibit > Mr. Nisbet's Tools of the Trade

Portrait of F. W. Nisbet, first director of the Harris County Law Library. Click to enlarge.

F. W. Nisbet was the first and longest-serving director of the Harris County Law Library. He began in October, 1915, shortly after the Law Library's Grand Opening, and continued until he was promoted to Librarian Emeritus in 1951. He stayed on in that position for another 5 years.

During Mr. Nisbet's tenure, law librarianship looked a little different than it does today. Without legal research databases, electronic security gates, and computers, his work centered around books for all aspects of his profession, from learning which resources his attorney-patrons might use to tracking the annual budget. This exhibit takes a look at Mr. Nisbet's tools of the trade and compares them to the implements of modern law librarianship.

Law Books and Their Use, 3d

Mr. Nisbet's copy of Law Books and Their Use, 3d. Click to enlarge.

Without the conveniences of a publisher’s website or bookseller’s catalog in 1915, law librarians needed information about available law books that might be helpful to patrons. Mr. Nisbet turned to sources like Law Books and Their Use, 3d. Here we have his personal copy with his last name and professional title written on the cover.

Published by The Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Company in 1925, Law Books and Their Use, 3d, was an extensive bibliography and reference book concerning American and English legal materials. The work begins with an overview of the sources of law and general legal research concepts. Subsequent chapters provided in-depth coverage concerning individual types of legal resources, including reporters, digests, and citators. Law librarians in the early 20th century could use this volume as both an acquisitions tool to find useful resources for their patrons, and as a reference book to refresh and enhance their legal research skills.

Law Library Catalog(ue)

Harris County Law Library Catalogue - first published in 1949. Click to enlarge.

Finding materials in a large library has always been a difficult task. In 1949, members of the Houston Bar Association received a helpful new resource - the Harris County Law Library Catalogue . The Catalogue organized the thousands of resources available in the Law Library by subject and title. A short history of the institution and a list of library rules were also included at the front of the work.

Today, the Law Library's catalog is available on our website. Visit it today to find titles available on the Law Library's shelves.

The Stamp

Property stamp used on books in the Harris County Law Library in the early 20th century. Click to enlarge.

Before electromagnetic strips were placed in books and security gates were installed in libraries, law librarians had to rely on the property stamp to ensure their books stayed in the library. Here we have an example of the stamp Mr. Nisbet used in the early 20th century. Today, many of the books in the Law Library's Historical Collection are from this early period in the Law Library's history and have remained in the collection for most of a century. If you do historical research at the Law Library, look for the stamp inside the front cover to see if you might be using a book that was stamped by Mr. Nisbet.


Lawyers Library Association stock certificate dated 1917. Click to enlarge.

In 1913, seven prominent members of the Houston bench and bar incorporated the Lawyers Library Association for the purpose of raising funds and establishing a law library. To raise the capital necessary for books and furnishings, the Association sold shares of stock at $25 per share. Shareholders became members of the Association and were granted the privilege of using law library resources.

Lawyers Library Association membership card from 1917 signed by J.S. Bracewell. Click to enlarge.

Because $25 in 1913 is roughly equivalent to $600 today, many shareholders chose to pay in monthly installments. This membership card shows the terms agreed to by J.S. Bracewell, original founder of Houston-based firm Bracewell Guiliani. Part of Mr. Nisbet's duties involved issuing membership cards, tracking payments, and reporting delinquent accounts to the Lawyers Library Association board. In doing so, Mr. Nisbet ensured that the Law Library could continue to purchase materials needed by its patrons.

1941 Texas statute relating to funding for county law libraries. Click to enlarge.

On September 15, 1941, Harris County Commissioners Court, led by County Judge Roy M. Hofheinz, voted to make the Law Library a county agency under a newly-amended state statute. Under the statute, $1.00 could be collected for each civil filling in the county to fund law library operations. The new funding mechanism freed Mr. Nisbet from the task of collecting past-due membership fees and allowed the Law Library to provide for the legal research needs of Harris County's growing bench and bar. Today, the Law Library is still funded by filling fees. For each civil case filed, the Law Library receives $15, which is the lowest law library fee assessed by any county in the State of Texas.

Keeping the Books

1948 ledger book with period receipt from Gammel's Book Store in Austin, Texas. Click to enlarge.

Today, law library directors maintain extensive spreadsheets and databases to track acquisitions of materials and annual budgets. When the Law Library opened in 1915, the business of law librarianship was very different. New and used books were purchased for patrons from booksellers across the country and purchases were recorded by hand in ledgers. Here you can see Mr. Nisbet's 1948 ledger book and a receipt from Gammel’s Book Store - the leading seller of law books in Texas throughout the early 20th century.