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Harvard Wants to Give Its Law Library Away, Online, for Free

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Harvard, not content to be the world's premier owner of books bound in human flesh, wants to unleash its giant law library on the world. The university announced this week that it will be digitizing its massive law library in order to create a complete, searchable database.

Oh, and it will be free. Suck it, Lexis and Westlaw, says Harvard. (Westlaw, of course, is a valued legal resource and sister company to FindLaw. We wish them only the best.)

Get Your Scanners Ready

It's been decades since most lawyers picked up a physical case law reporter. We assume that most law students don't even know what the Federal Reporter looks like. Even early digitized case reporters have been around long enough that they're in their second or third generation. (Goodbye, old blue. Hello Westlaw Next!) But Harvard Law still has most of its resources in good, old-fashioned paper.

That means the university will be pulling out a massive, high-speed scanner for its digitization efforts. More than 40 million pages will be scanned, uploaded and made searchable as a result of the school's efforts. "We feel an obligation and an opportunity here to open up our resources to the public," HLS Dean Martha Minow told The New York Times.

The project is being funded with millions of dollars from Ravel Law, a California start up, according to the Times. Ravel Law will also host the legal database on its website.

So, are private, commercial providers of legal databases feeling threatened? Probably not. "I don't anticipate this having a significant impact on our business," Andrew Martens, chief of legal products for Thomson Reuters said. (Thomson Reuters owns both Westlaw and FindLaw.) Most of the value from a service like Westlaw comes not from the case law itself, but the ability to link, check, and reference cases in a single place.

And of course, there are already plenty of free legal resources available online. (Ahem.) Ravel and HLS plan on making California and New York cases available first. Much of that case law can already be found online, on sites such as FindLaw and even the California court system itself. Ravel, though, thinks its application of analytics to judges, cases, and searches will help "disrupt" legal research, or at least set it apart from the existing free options.

Harvard Law School's digitization project is just one of several Harvard efforts to get their library holdings online. The school is currently scanning all of its Nuremberg files, for example, and has made its copy of the Magna Carta available online.

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