Albert Einstein said, ‘The only thing you ever need to know is the way to the library’. He said that in a different era but even today, he’s correct. He was speaking not just about information but about a broader knowledge and wisdom.
The way to knowledge is not through the lid of your laptop. Quite possibly most of the information you will ever need is there, hence the description IT, information technology, but not all the knowledge and precious little wisdom or judgement will be there. For that you need a library. IT is simply that, technology which provides information. Even AI, artificial intelligence, will not provide wisdom.
Middle Temple has one of the finest libraries in London, and it’s yours and you already know the way there.
Law is constantly developing but it is solidly based on precedent, not just in terms of legal authority but in the history of legal thinking and philosophy.
Baroness Hale, former President of the Supreme Court says that when the new court was being designed, they put the library at the centre of the building because knowledge and wisdom is at the centre of what they do, also because it underlines the importance of learning and the fact that ‘we’re not making it up as we go along’.
Writing this piece coincided with a trip to Ireland. Whilst there I visited the Robinson library in Armagh, which was described by its founder as a healing place for the soul. Incidentally, the library has a first edition copy of Gulliver’s Travels, which shows the battle between the author and his publishers about how vicious he could be about the government of the day and its corrupt practice of handing out honours to its friends, deserving or not. The publisher tried to alter Swift’s description of an honour by the colour of the ribbon in order to avoiding offending politicians. How little has changed.
Inspired by thinking about libraries, I also visited Marsh’s Library in Dublin. It was opened in 1707 and is the oldest public library in Ireland. I sat and wrote a bit of this at the table where Bram Stoker sat and wrote Dracula. I had opened the lid of my laptop to write it, but I found inspiration and greatly enjoyed the experience of actually sitting in the same beautiful place as Bram Stoker, James Joyce and many other wonderful writers. The creators of libraries in the 18th Century believed in spiritual, mental, and physical nourishment. Our current interest in wellbeing is only a contemporary manifestation of the same thing, finding a source of peace and a place of healing and restoration.
To be a functioning lawyer you may not need to know much more than the law required to pass an exam; to be a good barrister it is essential to know the law and its setting in a broader legal framework; to be an excellent barrister you need to know these things and to be able to set them in the context of the world around you. That means knowing and understanding contemporary issues, history, religion, and art in every manifestation. Or at the very least, for most of us, knowing where to look for them.
Advocacy is the art of persuasion, one of the best tools of persuasion is to use analogy to make a point comprehensible and immediate to the audience. That requires more than a working knowledge of the law.
It is not just a place that provides answers to your questions, it teaches you what questions to ask.
Robert Ashley, after whom the building is named, had the foresight to accumulate a collection of books and the generosity to give them to the Inn. The current librarian Renae Satterley and her team have the foresight and generosity to welcome you today and provide you with information, wisdom, and entertainment. They are very approachable and always willing to help.
There is so much more than books; there are exhibitions, currently, ‘Islam, Astronomy and Arabic Print’ running until September. You can visit during opening hours and gain both information and knowledge while you’re there. The exhibits include astronomical Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, translations of verses from the Quran about astronomy. You can see it online if you would like (www.juncture-digital.org/middletemplelibrary/Islam-Astronomy-and-Arabic-Print/), but how much better to see the actual texts for real.
Over the last couple of years there have been talks about Botany in Forensic Science, Women as Murderers and Phillippe Sands KC read from, and answered questions about his book Ratline, written about the ability of war criminals to escape justice. Again, how little has changed. There has also been a talk by young BAME crime novelists about their work.
Even if you aren’t interested in visiting an exhibition or listening to a talk, there are beautiful things just to see, the Molyneux Globes, the Whalebone Casket, and countless maps and pictures. In the future we hope to hold the ‘Library Proms’, short musical events as a way of hearing music that is unfamiliar but enjoyable.
At a more practical level there are regular Legal Research training sessions in how to use the IT available to you, how to conduct legal research efficiently and productively. Thoughtful research pays off, you can advance an argument that is far more inventive and well-structured than the product of word searching through any search engine. It’s not just a question of finding a case that the other side hasn’t seen, it’s so much more impressive if an argument is developed on an understanding of broad principles and their development. There is also a document delivery service, iPads to borrow and online training and webinars.
If you want to know the capital city of a country, google it. But if you want to learn about the people, you need a book; and if you want to know more about their culture and way of life, you need more than one book, in other words a library.
It can be a place to work in peace and comfort. But it’s also a place of interest, imagination, and adventure.
Master Maura McGowan is a High Court Judge and sits in the King’s Bench Division.
She was Chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales in 2013, only the second woman chair. Previously she had served on the Professional Conduct and Law Reform committees. She was awarded Lawyer of the Year by Legal Business in 2014 and awarded a lifetime achievement award by Chambers UK Bar Awards in 2016. She was Treasurer of the Inn in 2022.