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Kudos to Harvard Law!

Forty thousand law books.

Forty million pages, give or take a few.

Court decisions that begin with cases that were decided before the Constitution of the United States was even written.

And — coming soon to the Internet near you — digitized copies of all of them.

Every. Last. Word.

Free.

freelaw

All thanks to the Harvard Law School Library and its “Free the Law” project.

The law school’s announcement last week, that it was digitizing its entire collection of U.S. case law and making the collection available online, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection, was driven by the view that “the law should be free and open to all,” according to Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow. “Using technology to create broad access to legal information will help create a more transparent and more just legal system.”1

No argument there. The sheer cost of access to computerized legal research systems even for primary law sources like these case books can be daunting, and lawyers, law firms and legal researchers of all stripes will surely welcome the opportunity to use this new resource.

But, of course, there are those secondary beneficiaries of this kind of largesse… folks like us. The genealogical community. Because the amount of genealogically valuable information tucked into the pages of American case law can be simply stunning.

The Legal Genealogist uses one case in a court records lecture that was decided by the Virginia Supreme Court in 1843. In eight pages of discussion of a nasty murder in the back hills of what is now West Virginia, you get enough information to chart out a good part of four generations of one family: who’s related to whom, details about which individuals lived near others — and even that one family member was blind.2

That’s eight pages from one book.

Think about more than 40 million pages. From roughly 40,000 books.

Think about all the ways our ancestors might have come in contact with the courts… and ended up in those pages.

Think about all the folks who found themselves unable to pay debts, or in trouble with the criminal law.

Think about all the people who may have been trying to collect a debt, or protect a land boundary, or a reputation.

Think about all the sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, cousins, in-laws — all the family members who ever got into a fight over who was going to get the land or the money or the slaves.

Think about court records for the identities of those slaves, years before African-Americans were ever recorded by name in the census.

All of that information, free, online, word-searchable.

Even better: the entire database will be accessible to nonprofit organizations and scholars who want to develop specialized tools to access the data in particular ways.3 So there may be even more ways to get into the data and use it effectively.

The funding for the digitization project is coming from Ravel Law, a private company that runs a legal research and analytics platform. And, no, it isn’t doing this out of the goodness of its heart. Ravel and Harvard are withholding the database from other commercial users for eight years and, during those eight years, Ravel expects to recoup the costs by offering specialized tools for lawyers and legal researchers.

That’s a perfectly reasonable way of financing the enormous costs of getting this much data digitized and put online — and we should all welcome the fact that we’re going to get free access because of the way Ravel was enticed to do this.

Now, it isn’t going to happen overnight. The first set of records is from California and it’s coming online sometime later this month. New York is expected to be next, by the end of the year, and the whole shooting match of nationwide case law should be online by the middle of 2017.

But this is going to be an enormously valuable resource for all of us… and those with Californians in their ancestry should start marking their calendars. By the end of this month — this month!! — you’ll be able to word-search California case law for mention of your ancestors… free.

Kudos to Harvard Law School.

I can’t wait…

  1. Harvard Law School Launches ‘Free the Law’ Project with Ravel Law To Digitize US Case Law, Provide Free Access,” Harvard Law Today, posted 29 Oct 2015 (http://today.law.harvard.edu/ : accessed 1 Nov 2015).
  2. M’Cune v. Commonwealth, 41 Va. 771 (1843).
  3. See Eric Eckholm, “Harvard Law Library Readies Trove of Decisions for Digital Age,” New York Times, posted 28 Oct 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 1 Nov 2015).
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