Law Libraries Look Forward and Back

My colleague Laurel Murdoch showed me the latest issue of the Harvard Law School Bulletin, the lead article focusing on the changes happening at the Harvard Law Library, led by John G. Palfrey, the Law School’s vice dean for library and information resources (formerly of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society). Palfrey is the author of a very interesting piece that Louis alerted us to, entitled Cornerstones of Law Libraries for an Era of Digital-Plus


Palfrey’s piece ends with a collaborative challenge:

Our next step should be a process akin to a design charrette.60 We ought to learn from architects about how they collaborate on designs of complex systems, to conceive together of a system of legal information that we would like to bring about over the next five to ten years. This process should include a broad group of stakeholders, including librarians, technologists, publishers, practitioners of law, and teachers of law.

This process should enable law libraries to establish a clear, shared vision for legal information on a global basis. We are today actively laying the cornerstones that will guide us in building this future. But we should not be building without a design in place. Such a design will ensure that our efforts will have a solid foundation. And only then can we ensure that we are building together through radical collaboration, not working at cross-purposes. In the process, we can bring about a bright future for law libraries, as well as for our patrons and society at large.

Earlier versions of the thinking in that piece can be found at the Duke Conversation on The Twenty-First Century Law Library among Richard A. Danner, S. Blair Kauffman, and John G. Palfrey.

The entire Bulletin piece is worth reading, but let me quote one paragraph that will attract legal historians as well as technology fans:

Basically, the laboratory is aiming to build a virtual library architecture as easy to navigate as the physical library. To see the value of this work, take a look at the library’s website where portions of the historical and special collections are posted. These collections are massive: more than 200,000 printed materials in the library’s rare books and early manuscripts collection; more than 250 collections within the modern manuscripts collection; and one of the world’s largest collections of law-related art and visual materials. Cataloging these items for the Web is a monumental task, but the results are breathtaking: See, for example, “Statham’s Abridgment,” a collection of 15th-century English Year Book cases from the time of Henry VI; or Bracton’s law treatise from the early to mid-1200s; or the Ruhleben civilian internment camp papers from World War I; or the ongoing project to digitize the 1 million pages of documents related to the Nuremberg Trials—all online.

For those of us who have found the Harvard’s Library’s comparative law collections to be invaluable when doing research in Cambridge, the Bulletin’s article has a vaguely worrying comment that Harvard might not in the future be the source of last resort:

The library is also more strategic about collecting the laws of other nations. “We have laws here that people don’t have in their own countries, so they have to come here to use them,” . The library has discontinued collecting the laws of countries like Switzerland, which are easily accessible from other sources, and instead focuses on putting online the laws of countries with unstable regimes or with too few resources to preserve the laws they have developed.

And for fans of a different sort of law library, let me commend Mike Widener’s two interviews about the rare books archive at Yale Law Library on Youtube. I had not realized that the survival of Yale Law School itself can be traced to a desire that the law library’s collection not be lost to the practising bar of New Haven. Here are the videos:

Yale Law Library

Yale Law Library 2

You can now take a video tour of the Lillian Goldman Law Library's Rare Book Collection, thanks to Yale Law School's Office of Public Affairs.

The 20-minute tour is available as Rare Books Library Tour – Part 1 and Rare Books Library Tour – Part 2, in the Yale Law School's YouTube channel. You can also view the entire video on Yale Law School's website.

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