Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Harvard Law Library "Frees the Law" with Their New Digitization Project

Has anyone not heard at least a whisper about Harvard's new "Free the Law" initiative at this point? It's been making its way through the blogosphere since it hit the news in late October...

For those who may not know, the project is devoted to making all U.S. case law freely accessible online and involves some serious heavy lifting on the digitization end as well as additional steps behind the scenes that will make the data truly accessible via search. Harvard Law School Library and Ravel Law, a legal research and analytics company, are joining forces on this project, and certain laws should be online as early as November.

Here's a round-up of recent articles so you can learn more at your leisure...

On October 28th, the New York Times led the pack both in print and online, announcing that "in a digital-age sacrifice intended to serve grand intentions, 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."

And librarians throughout the nation found themselves simultaneously gasping at the deliberate destruction and applauding the sincere motivations behind the madness...

The initiative was also announced online in Harvard Law Today - this posting includes Harvard Law School's video "Announcing Free the Law."  Their video documents the process and features interviews with Daniel Lewis, founder of Ravel Law, and Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard Law Library Director and Law Professor.

Next up - the inimitable Jean P. O'Grady at Dewey B. Strategic had an opportunity to speak with Daniel Lewis, founder of Ravel Law, and fleshes out the basics with additional details which are definitely of interest to librarians, such as "How does this project differ from the caselaw available on Google Scholar."

Want to hear from Jonathan Zittrain of the Harvard Law Library?  Robert Ambrogi at Law Sites spoke to him and after their conversation added some additional notes to his initial posting, such as the fact that "Ravel will create an application programming interface (API) so that nonprofits can write apps and plug into the ecosystem of these cases, to create their own portal into the database."

Ambrogi then spoke to Daniel Lewis and wrote a follow-up post with more exclusive tidbits about the project, including the conversations between Lewis and Zittrain that sparked "Free the Law" started two years ago over frozen yogurt.

Within forty-eight hours of the announcement, a range of other outlets had begun picking up the buzz, with the Christian Science Monitor speculating on how this project may change legal practices by leveling the field and allowing improved access to justice. And even straight techie sites like Techdirt were praising this as a useful and worthwhile project.

Where will this project lead, and what lasting impacts will it have?  Only time will tell.  Until then, I've got nothing but applause for Ravel and the Harvard Law librarians' dedication, bravery and initiative.

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