Harvard Law School and Ravel Law Collaborate to Improve Access to the Common Law

printerBy Carlie Bacon

The technological age has transformed the once-useful volumes lining the walls of law firms and libraries into decorative dust-collectors. Just like this blog post, the information in those books can be accessed from anywhere that you can check your email. Law is widely regarded as a conservative profession, but even so, modern attorneys and law students conduct legal research online. Why turn page after page at a desk somewhere, when you can scroll through seamless documents from the comfort of, well, anywhere?

Companies like Westlaw and LexisNexis offer access to enormous electronic databases and handy research tools, but at a cost. Subscription fees can total millions of dollars annually for large firms. Like those shelves full of books, commercial databases’ days may be numbered too.

Harvard Law School is slated to post its entire library of United States case law online by 2017. That library boasts an estimated 43,000 volumes containing about 40 million pages of United States case law, making it the largest academic law library in the world.

Cases and statutes are public domain, but the public does not necessarily have ready access to those materials. For instance, the United States Code and many free online databases like this one are open to anyone with Internet access. These free sources are, however, limited. Some primary documents, such as older state and federal cases, are not available online for free. Also, many free sources do not provide convenient, user-friendly tools like search functions.

The “Free the Law” project, a partnership between Harvard Law School and Ravel Law, will fill those access gaps. Ravel Law is a California-based start-up company that is funding the costs of digitization for the project. The company utilizes machine learning, natural language processing, and data visualization to provide an innovative search experience.

Per the key terms of the Harvard-Ravel Agreement, Harvard owns the resulting data from the project, but Ravel gets a temporary exclusive license to commercially exploit the redacted files. At first, the database will only be available to nonprofit organizations, law students, and scholars. Ravel will equip these users with search visualization and basic case reading and annotation services for free. Users have the option to purchase upgrades like judge analytics and case analytics. After eight years the project will be open to anyone, even commercial groups.

So how are these millions of pages making their way on to the World Wide Web? Harvard Library Innovation Lab staff members first slice the bindings from the books and run the pages through a high-speed scanner, at a rate of about 500,000 pages per week. Next, the pages are reconnected, placed in a plastic bag, vacuum-sealed, and preserved in long-term underground storage. Headnotes and other editorial content are redacted. Finally, these redacted images and text files are uploaded to Ravel’s platform and ready for use.

With the “Free the Law” project bringing Harvard’s Law Library to the people, and with similar endeavors like Google Books Library Project, we seem to be on the brink of a new standard for free, quality, access to information.

Image source: Lorin Granger.

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