A Digital Archive of Legal History?

The British papers are full of the British Library’s deal with Microsoft to digitize 25 million pages of material (100,000 books) that is outside the period of copyright protection: see http://news.zdnet.com/2102-9588_22-5933033.html?tag=printthis

I was surprised at how little the classics of the law are available from the regular search engines on the open web.

I did a small experiment on Google, Google Scholar, and Google Print, looking for the five great treatises of the English common law: Glanvill’s Treatise on the laws and customs of the realm of England, Bracton, Littleton’s Tenures, Coke and Blackstone, together with Sir John Fortescue’s De Laudibus Legum Angliae, Christopher St. Germain’s Doctor and Student and De Republica Anglorum.

Spotty results. Funnily it was the rise of the neocons that make some of this material available.

You can find Blackstone at http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/blackstone/blacksto.htm and Coke at http://oll.libertyfund.org/EBooks/Coke_0489.pdf

Bracton in an English Translation is at http://www.constitution.org/britton/britton.htm

The Commonwealth of England as the De Republica Anglorum is styled in translation is at http://www.constitution.org/eng/repang.htm

I couldn’t locate Littleton’s Tenures, good luck on Ranulph Glanvill.

One can’t find Sir John Fortescue’s De Laudibus Legum Angliae except behind a firewall.

After that it’s slim pickings. One fascinating place I did find is the Google Print facility and access to the complete OUP text of AWB Simpson’s classic “A History of the Common Law of Contract” which dates from the mid-1980s.

It looks as if the digitization of libraries project will ultimately spread access globally. But what about this side of the Atlantic. How much of Canadian legal history is available through the web.

Why aren’t the basic documents of Canada’s constitutional history available? The drafts and documents leading up to major constitutional developments? Obviously the BNA Act and the Charter are available, but so much more should be available. There aren’t any copyright hang-ups on that material.

I was excited by suggestions that the material on the Charlottetown Conference was available on a federal site. But by a huge irony, the collection of material on the Charlottetown Conference at http://collections.ic.gc.ca/E/view.html is met with dead links.

Shouldn’t this be a priority for those concerned with Canadian legal history?


  1. A good question Simon. The digitalization efforts of Canadian hisitorial law has so far been quite balkanized. The national library/archives has recently taken steps to coordinate activiites through the national digitial inventory:


    Alberta has also recently finished a project called the Alberta Law Collection:

    The biggest player is by far the Law Library Microform Consortium Digital Project. Most academic libraries in Canada are members. The project will involve the digitalization of much historial Canadian material. The scope and present status of the project can be found at:


    The directors of the Canadian academic law libraries recently met with representatives of the national library to get them to purchase the silver halide fiche from the LLMC project so that the digital records are preserved in and for Canada.

    You could also check out http://www.canadiana.org

    Kind of a long answer. There is a stimulus to digitalize and preserve the print record of Canadian legal history through the Canadian Association of Law Libraries. This in two ways: digitalizing significant titles and preserving the last copies of these titles in print. As yet there is no national strategy, but a number of Canadians are involved with a national project in the U.S. called the Libraries Information and Preservation Alliance, the idea to bring back the ideas and structure to a similar Canadian project, if possible.

    LIPA is at http://www.aallnet.org/committee/lipa/

    All this is a lot of stuff. I’m one of the Canadians on LIPA, and like Simon this is a significant issue.