Student's quest brings historic legal texts back home

How one law student’s search for family heirlooms in B.C. led to the repatriation of historic Alberta legal books


First-year law student Michael Stack isn’t the kind of guy to give up easily. Good thing, because if he didn’t have that character trait, some valuable historic Alberta legal texts would be gathering dust in another province rather than being used and appreciated by University of Alberta law students.

Earlier this fall, Stack set out to find the books, which belonged to his grandfather and great-grandfather, who had both been judges in Alberta.

After getting a tip that someone, possibly a distant relative, might have the books in Victoria, B.C., Stack called and emailed relatives there, many of whom he didn’t know or forgot about. Unfortunately, no one knew where the books were.

But all was not lost.

Stack continued his search when he got another tip that Victoria resident Cordelia McIntosh had some legal texts for which she was trying to find a new home. With his newly discovered family in Victoria, Stack wondered whether the books could somehow be his grandfathers’.

They weren’t, but Stack had inadvertently stumbled onto something else: a rich trove of significant Alberta legal history.

A new chapter unfolds

McIntosh had a huge collection of books consisting of Alberta law reports spanning the years 1860-1920, and covering a variety of areas of British law, including chancery, exchequer, probate and appeals. The books had belonged to Justice Albert Ewing (1871-1946), a onetime MLA and member of the Supreme Court of Alberta, who had once been married to McIntosh’s mother-in-law.

Instead of moving on to the next lead in the search for his grandfathers’ books—or giving up altogether—Stack struck a new plan. He became enthralled with the idea of finding a new home for McIntosh’s collection.

It wouldn’t be easy, given that there were about 400 books weighing nearly 600 kilograms.

“Neither government offices, museums, universities, nor law practices were interested in receiving the collection, either in whole or in part,” said McIntosh. “I was told that they take up too much space, and that most, if not all, of the content would already be digitized.”

Stack contacted several organizations in Edmonton to try and find a new home for the books, but none would agree to take them on. He learned that finding an organization with the space to house the books—and the funding necessary to transport them from Victoria—was going to be difficult.

From one new home to many

That’s when he came up with the idea of sharing the collection with the rest of his classmates instead, or at least other like-minded students—and finding many good homes instead of just one. McIntosh agreed.

Stack shared his story with Faculty of Law Assistant Dean (Administration) Robert Bechtel, who granted him permission to store the books at the Law Centre in an unoccupied office.

“Every faculty member, student and department I contacted was eager to help in any way they could,” Stack said.

With a temporary home for the books secured, Stack moved on to getting the books here from Victoria. Courier delivery proved too expensive, so the books were chartered by a freight company in Victoria and arrived at the Law Centre three days later.

Stack sold the books to his fellow students for $5 each, or five for $20. To date, he has sold enough of the volumes to cover the $800 shipping cost, which he paid out of pocket. Stack said that students selected books for a number of reasons, such as which area of the law they plan to practice after articling, particular cases of interest or just as a keepsake and memento from their time at law school.

“I had one student come into the office with an itemized list of all the precedent-setting decisions from the time period covered by the texts,” he said. “He wanted original copies of cases we were just beginning to study as law students. Another was looking for a single volume that contained a case that dealt with cannibalism. The student had written their undergraduate paper citing that decision and was overjoyed to possess a copy.”

Stack is set to keep all of the volumes left over.

“At this point it looks like approximately 130 texts will go unclaimed,” he said, adding that he set aside all seven volumes of the English and Irish appeals cases for himself, as well as two volumes entitled Crown Cases Reserved.

“The Stacks have their roots in Ireland and the Crown Cases Reserved was a specialty court I had never heard of,” he explained.

Stack understands that some might find his desire to save the books strange, especially when there’s no familial connection, but he said he was simply doing what felt right.

“I’m a really sentimental Alberta guy,” he said. “Knowing that this collection is a piece of Alberta judicial history, I felt like it should be preserved.”

As for finding his ancestors’ books, Stack said his relatives in Victoria may have yet another lead for him to follow.

“I haven’t lost hope that I’ll find them.”