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More Access to the Law, But at What Cost?

by on January 28, 2016

Harvard Law School has had about two months to work on its newest project, Free the Law. When I read about it in The New York Times, I was of two minds. The book lover in me shed imaginary tears as I read that the spines of nearly all the tomes in the collection were being sliced off to digitize the pages. Yet the former electronic content manager in me cheered at the access that this will grant myriad customers.

With something in the neighborhood of 40 million pages of legal decisions dating back to the Colonial period, the Harvard Law Library is rivaled only by the Library of Congress in its scope. While most of the cases contained therein are also public domain, they are also either accessible only in hard-copy or by paying for a digital copy. Harvard’s Free the Law project aims to make all 40 million pages of its library available for free on the internet.

The possibility of such access is in keeping with the spirit of the law. The law is defined as a set of rules and regulations established in a community and applicable to its people. It is meant to help bring order to the community without doing it harm. When access to the letter of the law is no longer free, this contravenes the law itself. Yet, the access this project creates may cost more than those working on it intend. In partnership with legal startup Ravel Law, Harvard wishes to have the project done in just two years, at the cost of its physical library. There will also be other hiccups this unfettered access will create.

Sacrifices to Scanners

For eight years, I worked as an electronic content manager and records analyst for the planning and development arm of a mid-sized municipality. My main duties were to digitize records and conduct research. My colleagues and I digitized everything from permits for homes to large-scale commercial planning projects.

There were days, however, where we worked on historical projects like Free the Law, scanning historical documents for research for other departments in the organization. This is why I shed imaginary tears for Harvard Law’s physical library. No matter the precautions you take when disassembling a book, the older it is, the more likely it will not survive the scanning process. The article in The N.Y. Times admits that all but the rarest books are being digitized, and spines are being reattached by Harvard’s book surgeons, their archivists.

Yet not all the tomes will make it. High-speed scanners are notorious for what I like to call “eating pages.”  Every day I scanned, even the hardiest of documents would shred through the wheels of my equipment.

Too Much Information

Because of my experiences with high-speed document scanners, I may be thinking a tad overdramatically regarding the losses of Harvard Law’s case library. As a content manager, the potential access certainly outweighs the possibility of a few hundred shredded book pages.

Having access to records like Harvard’s law library can assist in crime mapping on more than one level. Once digitized and indexed, scholars, lawyers, and researchers will be able to search the databases for an endless amount of terms, including locations. This will allow for crime analysis on a much grander scale than Ravel Law already allows with its own search visualization tool.

The case law database will also give the public and those with non-legal backgrounds the ability to search United States case law. Without a legal background, Free the Law might turn into a case of too much information.

Users who do not have training in either legal or database research may be overwhelmed by the technical aspects of using the resource. According to Harvard Law and Ravel, research on the database will involve search strings, and knowing Boolean modifiers and advanced search operators may come in handy.

The database will also be so comprehensive that it will include case law that has likely outlived their relevance. Cases are typically only helpful in setting precedent for around twenty years. After they are settled, their value depreciates about 85 percent during those twenty years.

Providing access to case law as old as 200 or 300 years old may end up muddying the legal waters rather than clearing them.

A Little Education

In order for Free the Law to be truly free, Harvard Law and Ravel will need to begin educating potential users on a variety of topics. The public, who may be curious about case law in a particular state, will need to learn legal terms such as abeyance and privileged will.

Since Free the Law is meant for the layperson as well as the legal professional, terms such as these, which pertain to everyday things like businesses and wills, must be understandable at the start. To do the research, users will also have to learn advanced electronic research techniques. Because the books will no longer be accessible, flipping pages for a glossary or an index will no longer be so simple.

Without this kind of preparation, I fear that the work going into Free the Law will go to waste. Otherwise, the law will continue to be accessed only by the privileged few.


Harvard Law School launches ‘Free the Law’ project with Ravel Law to digitize US case law, provide free access.Harvard Law Today, October 29, 2015.

Echholm, Erik. “Harvard Law Library Readies Trove of Decisions for Digital Age.The New York Times, October 28, 2015.

Sheppard, Brian. “Why Digitizing Harvard’s Law Library May Not Improve Access to Justice.Bloomberg BNA, November 12, 2015.


Ravel Law

Searching with a Search Engine

Crime Mapping, Demographics of Illegal Activity

Legal Terms and Meanings

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