Thursday, October 29, 2015

Harvard Law Library Sets Out To Digitize Decisions Going Back To Colonial Times

The NYTimes ran an article yesterday about Harvard Law Library working to digitize a vast trove of cases.

Shelves of law books are an august symbol of legal practice, and no place, save the Library of Congress, can match the collection at Harvard’s Law School Library. Its trove includes nearly every state, federal, territorial and tribal judicial decision since colonial times — a priceless potential resource for everyone from legal scholars to defense lawyers trying to challenge a criminal conviction.

In what some librarians may see as a controversial move, the Harvard librarians are slicing off the spines of all but the rarest volumes and feeding some 40 million pages through a high-speed scanner. They are taking this once unthinkable step to create a complete, searchable database of American case law that will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that usually must be paid for.

“You can imagine the way your heart skips a small beat when you put a book under a chopper like that,” he said. After the volumes are scanned, workers reattach the spine to the pages, encase the book in shrink-wrap and, he said, “put it back in the depository for the apocalypse.”

Harvard Law Library sees this as an access to justice mission. Rather than keeping this information just for show, they want to put the primary documents online in a convenient format.

Complete state results will become publicly available this fall for California and New York, and the entire library will be online in 2017, said Daniel Lewis, chief executive and co-founder of Ravel Law, a commercial start-up in California that has teamed up with Harvard Law for the project. The cases will be available at www.ravellaw.com. Ravel is paying millions of dollars to support the scanning. The cases will be accessible in a searchable format and, along with the texts, they will be presented with visual maps developed by the company, which graphically show the evolution through cases of a judicial concept and how each key decision is cited in others.

This is a worthwhile endeavor, in part, because more and more libraries are canceling print and moving digital. Many of us are counting on libraries like Harvard to be the keepers of the print that we can call on as needed. This makes that job easier for everyone.

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