Charles Reznikoff was a non-practicing lawyer who spent much of his professional life immersed in the archives, researching case law for a legal encyclopedia. His immense “poem” Testimony is mined from these documents. Somehow he manages to make very moving poems out of the dry-as-dust legalese of his source material. Testimony‘s focus is firmly on the poorest members of society, and Reznikoff pays particular attending to black peoples’ struggles. If only he were still with us; his job just got so much easier. The Harvard Law School Library’s “Free the Law” project “aims to digitize the entire body of US case law and make it available to the Harvard community and the world free of charge in an open-access database.” They report on progress here. The project is being funded by Ravel Law who provide this introductory video.


I’m feeling a bit ambivalent about this news. On the pro side, it’s good to have stuff available on-line free of charge. BUT.

29lawbooks-master675One of my regrets about library digitization projects is the loss of the physical book. Harvard are chopping the spines off all but their rarest volumes, (which will presumably be non-destructively scanned) and scanning the resulting pile of paper.  After scanning they are vacuum sealing the loose pages in plastic and storing them as we see librarian Steve Chapman doing in this photo. Well, I guess that’s better than tossing them out as several other libraries have done, but I’m not sure whether I really think a package of vacuum-sealed pages in some basement is much better than nothing.

My real problem with the project is paradoxically the very fact that it is making the material available free of charge. “Legal groups spend anywhere from thousands of dollars a year, for a small office, to millions, for a giant firm, using commercial services like Westlaw and LexisNexis” the New York Times tells us in its report on the “Free the Law” project. Giving lawyers this stuff free of charge just means lawyers won’t have to pay for it any more. You know, and I know that this is unlikely to lead to any reduction in the cost of hiring a lawyer. Harvard’s gift is a gift to the profitability of law firms, no one else. Well maybe the odd legal scholar or student, unaffiliated with an institution already subscribing to Westlaw or LexisNexis — if such a person exists. The Times article quotes a lawyer as saying “Anything that brings down the costs of attorneys providing indigent defense is a good thing.” I think indigent defense is public defender/pro bono lawyering. So this isn’t about benefitting the poor defendant: it’s about reducing the lawyers’ costs of doing so.

Strangely perhaps both Westlaw and LexisNexis are quoted as being unconcerned about any loss of business. I guess they believe they provide enough other stuff to remain essential to their customers. Ravel is paying millions of dollars to support the scanning, yet they seem happy that free access is available. Obviously they too see a way to make their money back somehow. Seems everyone’s a winner — except the poor old printed book.