Building Digital Law Libraries

After the 2010 earthquake destroyed Haiti’s law libraries, the Law Library Microform Consortium (LLMC), a non-profit cooperative of libraries, spearheaded the Haiti Legal Patrimony Project. 13 U.K., U.S., and German libraries contributed unique materials from their collections to help rebuild a collection of Haitian law online via the LLMC Digital database. Many of the 700+ titles on the master list (initially compiled from Law Library of Congress and Columbia University Law Library bibliographic data) have been digitized. The online collection comprises constitutions, statutes, codes, periodicals, and legal treatises. The Haiti Project is one of many digital law library initiatives. Law librarians are individually, and in cooperation with other libraries, research institutions, non-profits, and commercial publishers, selecting and publishing law content online. As LLMC’s project overview states, “What we law librarians currently do best is build digital law libraries.”

Law Library Digitization Initiatives

Individual law libraries are preserving unique or special collections of materials in digital format and making them freely and publicly accessible. Cornell Law Library’s Liberian Law and Donovan Nuremberg Trials collections are excellent examples. Selected libraries are digitizing in-copyright, orphan works. For others, check Pathways to Old Legal Journals and here. Law libraries are also partnering with research institutions and other libraries to digitize legal materials. One major project is the Hathi Trust Digital Library which includes law-related government documents and monographs. The Max-Planck Institute for European Legal History’s virtual reading room features 19th century periodicals such as the Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, dissertations, and texts, plus a collection of German, Austrian, and Swiss books on private law and civil procedure. 

Consortia and groups such as NELLCO and the Northeast Foreign Law Librarians Cooperative Group are collaborating on plans to digitize foreign law. LLMC is digitizing materials from the Common Law Abroad collection. Potential candidates for future digitization include the following LLMC microfiche collections: Canon Law; Civil Law: France; Civil Law: Italy, Spain, Portugal; Civil Law: Germany, Austria, Switzerland.

Other Library & Research Initiatives

National library digitization projects often include law-related materials. For instance, the Bibliothèque National de France created GALLICA, which collects ebooks on the history of French law and justice. A blog post titled “Faire justice, à travers Gallica” discusses the collection. The National Digital Library of South Korea will likely include law-related titles too.

Pixelegis (Spain) has over 800 19th century legal titles. Ius Lusitaniae – Fontes Históricas do Direito Português  contains over 17,000 Portuguese legal historical texts. The Biblioteca Jurídica Virtual (Mexico) has books, documents, articles, and journals such as Cuestiones Constitucionales and the Anuario Mexicano de Historia del Derecho. There are also the Portal Iberoamericano de Historia de Derecho (PIHD) and ViFa Recht (Virtual Law Library, Germany).

Early Dutch Books Online (EBDO) includes a few law titles at its initial launch. (HT Otto Vervaart, Rechtsgeschiednis Blog). The Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes in Spain includes constitutional documents, articles, and books, as well as Constituciones Hispanamericanas. Gale’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and Chadwyck-Healey’s Early English Books Online (EEBO) also include law-related materials.

Partnering with Commercial Publishers

Librarians have partnered with publishers and Google to suggest and select content, and to lend or donate print volumes, for new digital law library collections. Several have also created publicly accessible e-law collections themselves. For example, the British Library recently announced a partnership with Google to digitize 250,000 books covering 1700-1870 – “from the French Revolution to the end of slavery.”

W.S. Hein has been one of the leaders in publishing historical legal treatises via HeinOnline with the Legal Classics Library, the World Trials Library, World Constitutions Illustrated, and the recently released, History of International Law Library. Hein can potentially digitize titles in the Association of American Law School’s A.A.L.S. Law Books Recommended for Libraries. Gale/Cengage publishes The Making of Modern Law: Legal Treatises, 1800-1926, Trials, and is digitizing its archival collections of primary law. JSTOR, which is considering adding more legal periodicals to its database, has partnered with major university presses to enlarge its collection of academic ebooks. Law librarians have been helping behind the scenes to create some of these digital collections.

Googlization of Law

Looming large at the forefront of digitization is Google. Libraries worldwide are providing books for Google’s digitization projects, and some of the books are coming from law library collections. Thus, Google Books and Google Scholar are becoming useful tools for discovering legal materials. Researchers looking for American law increasingly use Google Scholar in particular as a starting point for their research. However, the breadth and depth of Google’s law content are not clear. 

The “Googlization” of legal materials is not deterring other actors from building e-law collections. The Internet Archive also has ebooks and etexts. Researchers can use its Open Library interface to locate books digitized books by the Internet Archive itself, libraries, and other online ebook collections.

Linking Initiatives

With all the digitization initiatives in progress, several efforts have been made to provide one interface to search them all. And at least one librarian, Dr. Klaus Graf, is attempting to link to them all. The German ZVDD-Portal includes over 500,000 digitized titles, many of them law-related, published from the 15th century to present. The Europeana portal provides a portal to digital collections in Europe (more than 15 million items from about 1500 libraries including a few legal sources such as documents from the Allied Control Council for Germany). Unesco’s World Digital Library project has very little law-related content so far, but looks promising. December 2010 saw the launch of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) project initiative. Harvard’s John Palfrey calls the DPLA a way to ensure interoperability between diverse digitization projects and to link data and efforts. 

Our Shared Digital Future

The DPLA and myriad other digitization initiatives, including the ones mentioned above, are examples of the variety of bottom-up, “smart”, pathways to the future Bob Berring discussed at Harvard’s The Future of Law Libraries: The Future Is Now? conference on June 16th. According to Berring, “chaotic development” can work well, especially in times of rapid change. The online law library collections we’re building and partnering to build may be scattered initiatives, but we are progressing lock-step, in tandem, towards a shared digital future of improved access to legal information.


  1. I had not heard of the Haiti Legal Patrimony Project before, but it’s very gratifying to see librarians from around the world move quickly to meet a pressing need for the Haitian legal system. Well done.