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Who Can We Blame for The Bluebook?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

It's the bane of every law student's existence: The Bluebook, a devilish, disorganized, and often bewildering collection of legal writing rules. It's a collection of 500 plus spiral-bound pages designed to make 1L's rip their hair out.

Who can we blame for those hours and hours lost miserably flipping between R.10 and T.8? For decades, the Harvard Law Review has taken credit for starting The Bluebook, but a forthcoming law review article by two Yale librarians paints a very different picture.

The Birth of The Bluebook, Version 1: It's All Harvard Law

The origin myth of The Bluebook goes thusly: In the 1920s, when law reviews and legal journals were still a relative rarity, Harvard law students began compiling a booklet of legal writing and citation rules. Other law schools learned about Harvard's book and quickly jumped on board, expanding and modifying it. Eventually, four schools got together and agreed to share the revenue from a standardized Bluebook.

But Harvard was still in charge. This version of The Bluebook's birth comes largely from a 1987 speech by Erwin Griswold, the once-upon-a-time president of the Harvard Law Review and dean of HLS. In Griswold's telling, despite the fee splitting, "virtually all the editorial work is still done at Harvard, which earns the largest share of the income."

Version 2: There's a Reason It's Not The Crimsonbook

A new study claims that the standard history of The Bluebook might be a bit off. In an upcoming article for The Minnesota Law Review, spotted by The New York Times' Adam Liptak, Yale librarians Fred R. Shapiro and Julie Graves Krishnaswami delve into Yale's archives and find the origin of The Bluebook in New Haven, not Cambridge.

The Bluebook came from one tiny Yale booklet, Shapiro and Krishnaswami argue. Karl Llewellyn, then editor in chief of The Yale Law Journal, put together a few pages covering, in part, proper citation. The next year, Yale again put out the booklet, now titled "Abbreviations and Forms of Citation."

The books, of course, were blue. Blue is, after all, Yale's school color. Crimson is Harvard's color and, tellingly, there is no Crimsonbook of legal citation. And Yale's citation style is reflected in the first editions of The Bluebook, the researchers show. The Harvard style guide that was in use in the time? It's not nearly as close of a match.

But Who's to Blame?

Alright, alright, Yale may have started The Bluebook, but is Yale responsible for the monster it's become? Shapiro and Krishnaswami think not. The end their research with the following postscript:

Some readers may question whether originating the hypercomplicated Bluebook should be a source of pride for Yale. Our response is that, although the Bluebook version that subsequently developed under the leadership of Harvard Law Review currently consists of 582 fairly large pages, the two earliest Yale precursors of the Bluebook were, respectively, one page and fifteen pages long. And these were very small pages.

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