Remembering Harry Bitner, Law Librarian and Professor of Law, Cornell Law School (1965-1976)

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Lorraine Gilden, Richard Gilden, Andrew Gilden


Peter W. Martin

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Harry Bitner, 1916-2001, Professor of Law and Law Librarian at Cornell Law School, 1965-76, had a profound influence on law librarianship as a profession and legal research as a faculty specialization. He is responsible for many of the essential features of law librarianship that the profession now takes for granted.

Harry received his J.D. degree in 1939 and his A.B. degree in 1941, both from the University of Kansas City (where he was a member of the University of Kansas City Law Review); and his B.S. L.S. degree from the University of Illinois in 1942. He served as Law Librarian, 1939-42, and Instructor in Law, 1942-43, at the University of Kansas City Law School. His academic career was interrupted by Army service, with successive promotions from private to technical sergeant, 1943-46.

Following his return to civilian life, he served briefly in 1946 as Reference Law Librarian, Biddle Law Library, University of Pennsylvania Law School. In the same year, he had the good fortune to become Associate Law Librarian at the Columbia Law School, under Miles O. Price, the recognized Nestor of law school librarians. During eight years at Columbia, he co-authored with Price their magisterial book, Effective Legal Research (1953). It was the first standard work on legal research, and, with its later editions, is still widely considered to be the best book in the field.

After Columbia, Harry became Librarian for the Department of Justice, 1954-57; Law Librarian, Yale Law School, 1957-65; and Professor of Law and Law Librarian, Cornell Law School, 1965-76, retiring as Professor of Law and Law Librarian, Emeritus, 1976.

Following his Cornell retirement, he and his wife, Anne, moved to New York City where they could be closer to their daughter, Lorraine Gilden and her family. At the same time, Harry continued his professional work as a bibliographer and law library consultant, first as Head of Bibliographic Services at Fred B. Rothman & Co., 1976-78, and then as Legal Bibliographer at Columbia University, 1978-89.

In 1960 Harry Bitner, together with Miles Price, visited the Law Library and wrote a report with extensive recommendations for increasing staff as well as collections. With the support of the University president, the law library budget became a part of the University library budget and would no longer be dependent on funds from law student tuition. When he arrived as Law Librarian in 1965 he set about implementing the report.

As the Law School’s first professionally trained Law Librarian, he played a particularly vital role in the development of both the book collection and the staff. He introduced scientific methods and standards to library processes, and brought professional acumen to the organization and staffing of the library. He substantially improved all areas of the law library, expanded and reorganized the staff, increased and classified the collection, and developed services to faculty and students. He was also responsive whenever feasible to student requests, including keeping the library open for more hours and providing copy services. He also started a new program of instruction in legal bibliography as part of the first-year curriculum.

During his eleven years as Cornell’s Law Librarian, as well as his preceding eight years as Law Librarian at Yale, Harry was active as a leading figure in the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), serving a term as its President.

He also was responsible for other important Association projects earning wide respect among AALL members. Professor Morris L. Cohen, one of Harry’s successors as Yale’s Law Librarian, stated: “Harry Bitner must certainly be counted among the giants of law librarianship. He was a quiet and gentle man, but a giant in mind and heart and in his many contributions to our profession.”

Harry Bitner was one of the first global law librarians, travelling to Africa in the 1960s to help create the law library in Tanzania (then Tanganyika, a former British colony and newly independent). He felt the exchange of legal materials from throughout the world would lead to better international understanding. The Bitner Research Fellows Program, established in his honor by his daughter and son-in-law, Lorraine and Richard Gilden, J.D. ’71 recognizes his love not just for the Law School library and Cornell but his keen interest in international legal jurisprudence.


Law libraries, Law librarians, Cornell Law Library, Cornell Law School


Legal Education | Library and Information Science