The Evolution of Law Libraries

Volume 5 • Issue 3 • March/April 2019
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The Harvard Library Innovation Lab

Embracing change in law and libraries

By Adam Ziegler

Twenty-five years ago, you’d have found me working every morning in the basement of my college library. My undergrad work-study job was swapping out the prior day’s slate of stale newspapers for fresh ones. I remember well the ink smudges; the variety of colors, formats, headlines, images, and stories; and the vague impression that no one but me ever touched most of the papers.

“We have also constantly inculcated the idea that the library is the proper workshop of professors and students alike; that it is to us all that the laboratories of the university are to the chemists and physicists, the museum of natural history to the zoologists, the botanical garden to the botanists.” -Christopher Columbus Langdell, first dean of Harvard Law School

Roughly 15 years later, I was in federal court in Boston, trying a contract case that turned partly on the harsh economic realities of the newspaper industry. The plaintiff had sold his digital printing startup to my client, a large public company. The purchase agreement required my client to make big payments postacquisition if sales of the startup’s product reached certain milestones. The product: a $500,000 high-speed printer. The target market: a rapidly declining newspaper industry. What do you suppose happened? The newspapers took a pass, the milestones weren’t met, my client made none of the contingent payments, and the plaintiff tried to realize his aspirations through a lawsuit. At trial the plaintiff touted his breakthrough technology and early-stage sales projections. Our witnesses told the jury story after story about their futile attempts to sell expensive printers to a shrinking industry forced to abandon print.

Today, you’ll again find me working every morning in the basement of a library—the Harvard Law School Library to be exact—where I’m fortunate to direct the Library Innovation Lab (LIL). I don’t handle newspapers much anymore, but I think often of that work-study job and trial as metaphors for the unrelenting impact of technology on the information economy. In law, education, publishing, and many other areas, the shifts from print to digital, from physical to virtual, and from in-person to online have had profound effects. These effects are simultaneously constructive, destructive, enlightening, confusing, promising, and terrifying.

The Takeaway

The Library Innovation Lab is a multidisciplinary team that blends expertise in technology, law, and libraries to explore new ways for libraries to lead and to serve in the production, sharing, and use of legal knowledge.

If technology-driven change in knowledge and information services is unavoidable, what should we do about it? That is a complicated, context-heavy question. But for the world’s largest academic law library, the answer has been to embrace it through the work of LIL, launched nearly 10 years ago to help expand the library’s role and impact in the digital world.

LIL is a specialized lab inside the law library.

In this issue of The Practice, we stop to consider that role today and its importance to the legal profession. This article shares LIL’s mission, methods, and principles; highlights some of our present work; and tries to situate that work within the broader context of transformational change in law and libraries. In “Making the Law Computable,” we examine how this work intersects with the law through the example of the Caselaw Access Project, LIL’s initiative to make all U.S. case law freely accessible and computable. In “Pausing the Internet,” we profile Perma.cc, an effort inspired and supported by libraries to preserve webpages to protect legal citations. Then, as we explore in “Sketching the Future,” innovation is about more than setting out to implement sweeping, high-impact projects. Indeed, small fixes to niche problems are important, too, and they can evolve into much more. Finally, in this issue’s Speaker’s Corner, “Leading Law Libraries,” Harvard Law School Library’s executive director, Jocelyn Kennedy, sits down with Georgetown Law’s associate dean for library services and professor of law, Michelle Wu, to talk through the challenges of law librarianship in the digital age and the future of legal research. The type of transformation that LIL embodies and hopes to advance is about more than a mere shift from print to digital—it is about bringing all the resources technology and libraries have to bear on legal scholarship and the practice of law.

Library as lab

The first dean of Harvard Law School, Christopher Columbus Langdell, famously described the law library as a laboratory for teaching and learning the “science” of law:

My associates and myself, therefore, have constantly acted upon the view that law is a science, and that a well-equipped university is the true place for teaching and learning that science. Accordingly, the law library has been the object of our greatest and most constant solicitude. … We have also constantly inculcated the idea that the library is the proper workshop of professors and students alike; that it is to us all that the laboratories of the university are to the chemists and physicists, the museum of natural history to the zoologists, the botanical garden to the botanists (C. C. Langdell, “Remarks to Harvard Law School Association,” Law Quarterly Review 3 [1887]: 118, 124).

Langdell’s “library as lab” idea has evolved but still has force. It derived originally from his view that “law is a science, that all the available materials of that science are contained in printed books,” and that “law can only be learned and taught in a university by means of printed books” (ibid.). Part of this premise no longer holds; the “materials” of law are no longer found only in printed books available only in libraries. But anyone who uses a law library or interacts with a library’s staff understands that they continue to serve as a vibrant teaching and learning workshop and an indelible connection between the “materials” of law and the legal community.

LIL is a specialized lab inside the law library. Its particular mission is to embrace technology-driven change and to actively explore the opportunities and challenges it creates in the fields of legal information, knowledge, learning, and scholarship.

We undertake big, meaningful projects with public impact while also pursuing small, seemingly frivolous activities and experiments that appear to have no impact at all.

LIL first launched in late 2009 under the leadership of library director John Palfrey. Its early, pathbreaking work focused on harnessing library usage and collections data, linking Harvard library data with other public data sets, building web tools for visualizing library collections, providing access to digitized special collections, and piloting a system for collecting reader feedback on books.

In 2012 Jonathan Zittrain became the library’s faculty director, and Suzanne Wones (now associate university librarian for digital strategies and innovations at Harvard Library) become the executive director. In the following years LIL took on ambitious efforts to expand access to legal materials online, empower faculty to create online casebooks, and ensure the integrity of web citations in legal writing.

Today, with the continuing support of Zittrain and Kennedy, the library’s executive director since mid-2016, LIL is a multidisciplinary team that blends expertise in programming, law, libraries, and design to pursue an array of large and small projects that serve the broader missions of the library and law school and the public interest. Thankfully, we do not have a monopoly on innovation. Across the library, our colleagues are constantly experimenting with new service and access models and collaborations. These experiments enrich the law school community through programs like Notes & Comment, the Case Studies Program, and lightning lessons. Throughout the law school, faculty, students, and staff are embracing change and grappling with new ideas, opportunities, and challenges. Our role is to be technology specialists and full-time practitioners of change.

‘Aimless’ experimentation

If you look closely at LIL’s output or watch us work on a given day, you’re likely to observe a paradox: we undertake big, meaningful projects with public impact while also pursuing small, seemingly frivolous activities and experiments that appear to have no impact at all. This paradox is central to LIL’s identity and success.

One of the joys of working at a library in a major law school is that our work can achieve enormous impact. Good ideas can earn national and global traction. Effective solutions can make a real dent in the problems they seek to address. For work that lives on the Web, this effect is exponential. And so one pillar of LIL’s identity is a focus on serious, systemic problems in which we can meaningfully intervene.

Effective solutions can make a real dent in the problems they seek to address. For work that lives on the Web, this effect is exponential.

For example, our Caselaw Access Project (see “Making the Law Computable”) is designed to ensure that all published court opinions in U.S. history are freely available on the Web and not locked away in books and proprietary databases that most people cannot access. Our web archiving service Perma.cc (see “Pausing the Internet”) aims to eradicate the severe problem of link rot in legal scholarship and other forms of legal writing. And our open casebook platform H2O is an ambitious intervention intended to address the failure of the commercial casebook industry to respond to the evolving needs of faculty and students. Large projects like these occupy almost all our time and energy. They require substantial planning, coordination, and resources. They entail complex systems and a sophisticated understanding of multiple disciplines. They demand and receive serious attention, effort, and creativity.

If an emphasis on serious, impactful interventions is one pillar of LIL’s identity, the other pillar is “aimless” experimentation (see “Sketching the Future”). By “aimless” I mean activities that are not directed toward solving an identified problem or achieving a specified result but instead are pursued purely for the sake of exploration, discovery, learning, or amusement. Often these activities reflect personal interests, curiosities, and hobbies of our team; they are “scratch your own itch,” not “do what you are told.”

For example, earlier this year we devoted a day to teaching, learning, and practicing crafts like origami, knots, aquabeads, linoleum carving, sewing, and crochet. Each member of our team taught and supervised others through at least one activity. Another example is our regular LILtalk events, where a member of LIL’s team or a guest shares an experience, interest, discovery, or idea that resonates with them. These talks have covered horseracing, the physics of black holes, coffee roasting, Mardi Gras, net art, anarchism, typography, aioli, the Finnish language, mathematician Emmy Noether, choral singing, being a witness in court, seltzer, media manipulation, Department of Justice investigations, encaustic wax painting, synthesizers, preparing for the apocalypse, comedy, Twitter bots, the 1924 Democratic Convention, adversarial examples in machine learning, and many other topics. A third example is our ideas channel, an endless, uncritical stream of things any of us would like to build or see in the world. It stands today at more than 1,000 ideas contributed by 27 different people over two-plus years. And a final example is our semiregular observance of Friday “funday,” where we do our best to set nonurgent project work aside for a couple of hours in favor of self-directed exploration, such as fiddling with a new programming language, framework, or technique; crafting an article, blog post, or presentation; hacking on a side project; or learning to code.

Activities in this vein occupy a small portion of our time and energy, but we value them deeply. Their influence on our project work and culture is undeniable. Many of these explorations and investigations mature into concrete “sketches” like Alterspace, CanIFairUse.It?, screenshare, Local Memory Project, and Private Talking Spaces, to name a few (see “Sketching the Future”). These activities also yield team-building and professional development benefits. They teach us to listen and learn from one another as well as to lead. They force us to actively support one another and to exercise authority and ownership in our work. They compel us to grapple with unfamiliar topics, to become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, and to ask questions. They frequently spark ideas that we recycle and reuse elsewhere, and they often lead us to productive collaborations we could not have imagined otherwise. And, of course, they bring us joy. They make us smile and laugh at work, which is no small thing.

Depending on your point of view, libraries are either doomed or irreplaceable. LIL sits squarely between these two extreme positions.

In this sense, LIL’s “aimless” experimentation is not aimless at all. It is purposeful, strategic, and indispensable. It does not dominate our time or waste our energy or attention; instead, it fuels our serious work in a way that evokes the relationship between reason and emotion described by psychologist (and Yale president) Peter Salovey, who developed the theory of emotional intelligence. Some corporate and institutional innovation leaders, including some in the legal industry, do not share our enthusiasm for this dynamic. For instance, the head of corporate research and development at Thomson Reuters recently lamented that innovation “is often confused with aimless experimentation and the endless pursuit of personal hobbies.” In his view, real innovation “requires discipline and accountability.” Similarly, the new leader of law firm Clifford Chance’s Applied Solutions group advises people thinking about legal tech and legal startups to “[m]ake sure you don’t scratch your own itch.” Comments like these can ring true, but they reflect conventional thinking rooted in the priorities and management philosophies of established commercial institutions. This kind of thinking risks suppressing ideas and discouraging the openness and creativity necessary to embrace change.

Library values meet internet values

It’s common in internet land to see claims that the internet is superior to libraries. It’s common in library land to see counterclaims that libraries are superior to the internet. Depending on your point of view, libraries are either doomed or irreplaceable.

In another seeming contradiction inherent to our work, LIL sits squarely between these two extreme positions. Rather than dwell on questions of superiority or displacement, we try to celebrate the positive attributes, achievements, and values of libraries and of the internet. We try to look for opportunities where the strengths of libraries can complement the weaknesses of the internet, and vice versa.

Libraries proudly stand for access to information, privacy, freedom of expression, learning, preservation, service, diversity, and social responsibility, among other principles. These values are timeless, in short supply, and urgently needed to meet modern challenges. The internet, on the other hand, stands for access to information, freedom of expression, learning, connection, communication, diversity, collaboration, and openness, among other principles. These values overlap considerably, and libraries and the internet can complement each other’s pursuit of shared values in many ways.

For example, over many decades our library amassed a comprehensive collection of published court opinions from state and federal courts. People with access to the library could request any volume and find and read any case. But, of course, finding and reading cases in print is extremely difficult even if you have access to the books. Moreover, people without access to a library had no way to access most of those cases, which were not available online except through expensive commercial databases. By digitizing the library’s entire collection and making it freely available to the public online through our Caselaw Access Project (see “Making the Law Computable”), we are able to dramatically expand access to the law. That project combines the efforts and skill of our library staff, including the many librarians who built and preserved the collection, with the best attributes of the internet.

Libraries stand for access to information, privacy, freedom of expression, learning, preservation, service, diversity, and social responsibility. These values are timeless, in short supply, and urgently needed to meet modern challenges.

Likewise, through many decades of work our library built up a comprehensive collection of trial and evidentiary materials from the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals. Access to these materials was limited, however, due to their volume, rarity, and physical condition. Through the Nuremberg Trials Project, the library has been able to digitize these important records, design and build a website enabling access to the collection, and craft a plan for completing the work necessary to properly describe, classify, and contextualize these documents for historians, researchers, and the public at large.

These projects exemplify the joining together of library and internet values to improve access to information, better serve the public interest, and enhance learning. Other projects, like Perma.cc, arise from the internet’s betrayal of principles that librarians know to value, such as citation integrity and preservation of knowledge (see “Pausing the Internet”). Many other opportunities exist for libraries, and perhaps LIL in the future, to fill holes created by the internet or to protect values abandoned by internet actors. Privacy, information credibility, and scholarly publishing are three broad areas that immediately come to mind, and Zittrain has developed some of these ideas in his essay, “Why Libraries (Still) Matter.”

Finally, one core value of the internet, which lies at the center of LIL’s work and which libraries largely have adopted, is openness. All the software LIL creates is open source and available on Github, which means anyone can copy, use, modify, or improve on our technical work. We also do everything in our power to promote open access to the data and knowledge we create and collect. The best example of this value in practice is our open casebook platform, H2O, where scores of casebooks are freely available and can be copied, shared, and modified under Creative Commons licenses.

What is LIL working on right now—and why?

I’ve alluded to some of our current projects, and a few of them are examined in greater depth in other parts of this issue. I want to conclude this article by zooming in and sharing some detail and context on what we are working on right now.

Computer Programming for Lawyers curriculum. A debate is currently raging about whether lawyers and law students should learn to code. One side of the debate maintains that lawyers should stick with what they know and leave the coding to professional developers. The other side insists that everyone, including lawyers, should learn to code because, according to entrepreneur Marc Andreesen, “software is eating the world.”

For the past couple of years, LIL’s senior developer Jack Cushman, who is also a lawyer, has addressed this debate by developing and teaching a course called Computer Programming for Lawyers. This past term I joined him as a coteacher. Our approach, for which Jack deserves tremendous credit, has been to teach programming in a way that is uniquely suited to law school and law students. The students learned the practical basics of programming in the language Python, but all the lab exercises were situated in legal contexts that the students could plausibly encounter as lawyers. We spent time in each class reviewing the relevant programming techniques and discussing the legal and policy implications of the exercises. The class concluded with two final projects. The first was a coding project that required students to create a working program on the basis of some legal experience or issue familiar to them. The second was a writing project that required students to review the code underlying a hypothetical (yet very real) system that predicted likely recidivism and write a memo to the attorney general advising on the implications of using the system.

A debate is currently raging about whether lawyers and law students should learn to code.

Taught this way, the course may or may not produce any professional developers, but I’m convinced it will produce more informed, capable, and effective lawyers.

Low-cost print versions of digital casebooks. Open-access digital casebooks that can be viewed on a laptop, tablet, or phone screen offer many advantages, but for most students studying the law is still best done on paper, with pen and highlighter in hand. At first, this bit of feedback from students surprised, confused, and humbled those of us working on the H2O open casebook platform. But on reflection it makes perfect sense. I’ll never forget the heavy highlighting and annotation I did in my own casebooks in law school.

To meet this need, we are deeply engaged now in two major enhancements to H2O’s functionality: (1) annotations and (2) printable exports. With annotations, we want to enable smooth, fast, seamless highlighting and commenting so that students can replicate in their browser some of the habits they have adopted for print. And for those who simply prefer print, we are building more advanced tools that let anyone export the contents of a casebook (or any part of a casebook) to Word, from which they can easily print the contents and make any adjustments to layout and style.

With the help of other colleagues in the library, we are also working on providing editorial assistance to faculty authors who want to prepare higher-quality casebooks that are compatible with print-on-demand services and, potentially, partners in the publishing industry who share our mission.

Compressing scanned images of court opinions. In the digitization phase of our Caselaw Access Project (for a deep-dive into the project, see “Making the Law Computable”), we scanned roughly 40 million pages. We extracted the text from those images and created structured data for every case, which is now publicly available, but we also intend to publicly share the scanned images. Because that quantity of images is expensive to store and serve in their original form, we are working to compress the images as much as possible and to optimize our storage of them.

Helping to build a community around case law research. One of our primary goals with the Caselaw Access Project is to help bring together a vibrant community of researchers working with the data to derive new insights about U.S. law and build new tools for understanding and analyzing court cases. Currently more than 140 researchers have requested and received bulk research access to the data set, and we are working to arrange a research summit this summer so that they can share their work and exchange ideas.

Empirical analysis of the law, computational law, and application of natural language processing and machine learning to large sets of legal data are relatively nascent fields that have been reserved mainly to commercial publishers who were able to exert proprietary control over public data. Tremendous opportunity exists for academic exploration in these areas, and we are eager to support that exploration.

As long as technology keeps driving our worlds of law and libraries to change, our enthusiasm to embrace that change will persist.

Working toward digital-first publishing of court opinions. Unfortunately, authoritative versions of opinions issued by most state and federal courts are still being distributed using a print-first approach, in which the official, citable version of the opinions are confined to commercially published books rather than being broadcast over the Web using a digital-first approach. Some states are already moving in this direction, and Congress has taken recent steps to expand public access to federal court opinions. We are actively advocating for this shift and doing everything we can to help courts move as quickly as possible to a modern paradigm. We discuss our initiatives in these areas in more detail in “Making the Law Computable” and “In the News.”

Making Alterspace replicable and remixable. We recently finished our short-term installation of Alterspace at the Cambridge Public Library in collaboration with metaLAB. We’re preparing now for modified installations in the Somerville Public Library and our law library, and we’ve received multiple inquiries from other libraries hoping to experiment with the project and put their own spin on the idea of empowering library visitors to shape their own library environment. Our goal is to openly share code and other resources that will allow other libraries to adapt what we have done and to try their own versions of Alterspace with their communities. (For more on Alterspace, see “Sketching the Future.”)

Consulting with students and faculty on new ideas and opportunities. Students and faculty are brimming with ideas for harnessing technology to advance their research and to address problems they perceive in the legal world. LIL is one of the places at the law school that is deeply familiar with the legal technology industry and has experience realizing new ideas through technology. We are doing everything we can to lend that expertise and to help others think through the opportunities and challenges ahead of them.

This is just a quick, partial snapshot of what LIL is doing in March 2019. Next month the picture will be different, and it will continue to evolve as new problems arise, new ideas emerge, and new people enter our sphere. As long as technology keeps driving our worlds of law and libraries to change, our enthusiasm to embrace that change will persist.

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The Evolution of Law Libraries Volume 5 • Issue 3 • March/April 2019

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