Tribute to Arthur Bonfield

Professor Arthur Bonfield

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Professor Arthur Bonfield led the Law Library from 1985 until 2014.

When Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand and a former Iowa Law School Professor, was named to the International Whaling Commission, he wanted to learn more about the organization he was about to join. But he was disappointed to find much of the reading he sought was unavailable in his native New Zealand, a country with a rich whaling tradition dating back to its indigenous Maori people.

Fortunately, not long after his appointment, he was scheduled for one of his periodic teaching stints at the University of Iowa College of Law and was able to dig into its law library.

“While much of the material I wanted was not available in New Zealand, I did find it at the Iowa Law library,” says Palmer. “In particular, there was small booklet by the author Patricia Birnie published quite a few years ago that I had not been able to find in New Zealand. But it was at the Iowa Law Library.”

That this library would have a wider collection of whaling law material than a place where the animal is central to the culture might be surprising to someone who doesn’t know Arthur Bonfield. He has taught law at Iowa since 1962 and has been the library’s steward since becoming Associate Dean for Research in 1985. At that time the library was tenth in size among all law school libraries and had about 480,000 volumes and volume equivalents in its collection. Bonfield stepped down from that position on August 1st after having built the University of Iowa Law Library into the largest public law school library in the country—with more than 1.3 million volumes and volume equivalents—and the second largest library by that measurement among all public and private law school libraries in the country. In 1985 when Bonfield assumed responsibility for the library it had 140,000 separately cataloged individual titles in its collection and was ninth in size on that basis. Today the Iowa Law Library has over 1 million separately cataloged individual titles in its collection of information resources and appears to be first or second among all law school libraries on that basis.

Most of that is a testament to Bonfield’s never-ending love of law, research, and all things book.

“Arthur’s stewardship is totally responsible for the explosive and unexpected growth of the library,” said dean emeritus and professor N. William Hines, who appointed Bonfield as associate dean.

The law library can trace its roots to 1868, when the Iowa Legislature provided $2,000 to buy its first 525 volumes, which were shelved in the House of Representatives chamber in Old Capitol. The collection grew considerably so that by 1977, when the law school was located in the Law Center, an examining team from the American Bar Association wrote that it has “the best inadequately-housed law school in the country.”

A larger library was one of Hines’ primary motivations for a new law building once he became dean in 1976. It’s not a coincidence, he said, that when the Boyd Law Building opened in 1986, the law library was at its center.

“The way I saw it, the library was the heart of a law school and legal education, and it’s at the heart of this school, both literally and figuratively,” Hines says.

When the Law Library opened in the new Boyd Law Building, its 406,000 volumes made it the 13th largest law school library by hard copy print volume count in 1985. Then Arthur Bonfield took over its stewardship.

Under his leadership, the library grew dramatically. In part, Bonfield says the reason is that as globalization has brought the world closer together, legal systems are increasingly intertwined, requiring substantial collections of foreign law materials. So, for example, European, Islamic, Chinese, and Mexican law collections have been added in recent years. In addition, the subjects of legal research of faculty and students and the extent to which they became interdisciplinary dramatically expanded during the last 25 years so the information needed to conduct those broadened research interests had to be acquired by the Library.

Bonfield says the number of new law-related scholarly books published each year has also exploded, and unlike other subject areas of scholarly book publishing, most scholarly new law books are still published only on paper. In fact, he says that in the last 29 years, the number of printed new scholarly law books has increased at a faster rate than the number of such new electronically published scholarly volumes on law.

On top of that, law libraries across the country have discarded thousands of print books because of their space limitations or in anticipation of the as yet unachieved switch to almost wholly electronic publication of scholarly law books. Over the years Bonfield managed to acquire for the Law Library tens of thousands of these abandoned law books that were not available in any format in this Library for a nominal cost, or no cost at all.

“We have at least 65,000 books on our shelves that were obtained for nothing or next to nothing,” he says, including such important collections as a complete bound set of all the briefs filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit between the late 1890s and the 1990s and runs of many scholarly foreign legal periodicals that this Library did not own and that are not available online. At the same time Bonfield points out that this Law Library has one of the most complete collections of electronic legal information resources in the country and will continue to acquire as a first priority all such electronic resources that are useful to its patrons.

Beyond its collection of information resources, Bonfield says the Law Library’s other important commitment is to provide the kind of service and education needed to help its patrons find what they need in its vast legal information collections in all formats. This helps more than just law students and law faculty. Very large numbers of students and faculty from many disciplines across campus use its outstanding collection of legal materials on a daily basis because the Law Library serves the whole University’s needs for legal information not just the Law School. It is also the “law library of last resort” for attorneys, judges, and government officials as well as other libraries across Iowa who are unable to find a legal publication they need anywhere else. Each year the Library sends volumes to every county in Iowa through inter-library loan.

But Bonfield’s love of books goes beyond the library. He co-founded the Iowa Bibliophiles, a group devoted to learning more about and preserving the history of the printed book. His personal library has about 8,000 books about his various obsessions beyond the law—history, political science, economics, philosophy, sociology, art, and music. A substantial portion of his collection is made up of original copies of rare books published and printed between 1490 and 1800, including encyclopedias, books on voyages and travels, early English history, and centuries-old scholarly treatises.

“My mother was a teacher, my father was a physician. Both of them loved books, so I grew up in a house with thousands of books,” he says.

In the end, though, the work done by Bonfield to build a premier Law Library during the last 29 years will be an enduring contribution to the College of Law, the University, and the State of Iowa. Palmer, who refers to this Law Library as “one of the seven wonders of the world,” and “Arthur’s magnificent obsession,” and the best law library he’s ever seen, says he even found an obscure tort case decided in the Australian state of Tasmania in 1927 in this Law Library, when it could only be found in a few other libraries in the world.

In this case “the defendant shot a cat perched on an adjacent shed,” says Palmer. “The issue was whether the entry of the rifle bullet into the airspace over the land amounted to a trespass. The court said that it was. You can read all about this in Davies v Bennison (1927) 22 Tasmanian Law Reports 52, which can be found in the Iowa Law Library.”

While Bonfield relinquished his role as head of the Law Library as of August 1 he will continue as a professor at the Law School teaching Administrative Law and Constitutional Law and his Administrative Law law reform activities.