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HIST 8055 - Methods in Legal History

What is the Law?

When people refer to "the law," they are usually referring in general to four very specific types of sources. These four types of sources are:

  • Constitutions;
  • Case law;
  • Statutes; and
  • Regulations.

A constitution contains the founding principles under which is a jurisdiction is governed. The United States Constitution contains the principles that are the basis for the system of law in this country. Each U.S. state also has its own constitution. 

Case law (also referred to as "cases" or "court opinions") is the body of decisions made by judges. Judges create case law when they resolve a dispute between parties in a court case. Existing case law can be considered "precedent" for later cases on that same issue in that same jurisdiction. This means that if a similar case later arises in the jurisdiction, the decision made in that older case on that same issue should still determine the outcome in the new case. There are exceptions to this, however. In the United States, there is both federal case law and state case law.

A statute is a law enacted by a legislature. Federal statutes are enacted by Congress while state statutes are enacted by state legislatures. 

A regulation is a rule made by an administrative agency. The administrative agency is given authority by Congress (for federal administrative agencies) or the state legislature (for state administrative agencies) to make regulations. Regulations provide very specific guidance to help carry out the legislature's intent.

In the discipline of law, constitutions, cases, statutes, and regulations are called "primary sources." Note that this is different from what other disciplines, like history, consider to be primary sources.

Explanations of the Law

Secondary sources provide researchers with an explanation of the law. If a legal issue arises and the researcher does not know or understand that area of the law, the researcher can consult a secondary source to get a better understanding of the law on that topic.

There are multiple types of secondary sources, including the following:

  • Legal treatises;
  • Legal encyclopedias;
  • Legal periodicals, including law reviews and law journals; and
  • Legal dictionaries.

In addition to explaining the law on a topic, secondary sources can also lead researchers to the primary sources (or law) for that area. For example, if you are researching the history of water pollution laws in United States, you might begin by looking for a treatise on environmental law or by looking for a law review article that discusses water pollution. Both of those sources, however, are likely to cite a statute like the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 or the Clean Water Act. Even though you may not have been aware of those statutes before, the secondary source not only explained the law to you but also led you to important relevant laws.

A legal treatise is a comprehensive work that provides detailed coverage on a legal topic. Treatises are written by experts in the field, such as judges, attorneys, and law professors. 

Like regular encyclopedias, legal encyclopedias provide information on a variety of topics, but all topics are related to the law. Legal encyclopedias can be general, subject-specific, or specific to a jurisdiction.

Legal periodicals contain articles about law-related topics. These articles are usually written by legal scholars and  generally provide a great deal of information about a narrow legal topic. Examples of legal periodicals include law reviews, law journals, and legal newspapers.

Legal dictionaries provide definitions of legal terms, as well as examples that help to explain the terms. Examples of legal dictionaries include Black's Law Dictionary and Ballentine's Law Dictionary. 

Accessing Legal Resources

Even access to some legal materials available through the Vanderbilt Libraries is limited to law students and law faculty, there is still a wealth of information that can be accessed by other members of the Vanderbilt Community.

Some information may be available only in print and accessible through the Massey Law Library. Please click here for more information on requesting physical items from the Law Library. 

Vanderbilt Libraries provides access to an abundance of historical legal information. The following databases contain a range of historical legal information. A good starting point is our research guide on Foreign and International Legal History. 

The Law Library has several research guides to help with questions related to international law research. They can be found here

The following databases may also be of help to you in researching international law.