Shelves of law books are an august symbol of legal practice, and no place, save the Library of Congress, can match the collection at Harvard’s Law School Library. Its trove includes nearly every state, federal, territorial and tribal judicial decision since colonial times — a priceless potential resource for everyone from legal scholars to defense lawyers trying to challenge a criminal conviction.
Now, in a digital-age sacrifice intended to serve grand intentions, the Harvard librarians are slicing off the spines of all but the rarest volumes and feeding some 40 million pages through a high-speed scanner. They are taking this once unthinkable step to create a complete, searchable database of American case law that will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that usually must be paid for.
As a bibliophile, the concept of slicing the spine off a book pains me. I feel like they should’ve been able to negotiate a deal with Google, get access to some of their specialized book scanners – when Google Books started, they had people doing it by hand, but, if I’m remembering properly, they’ve now got an automated system that uses a high-resolution camera and a robotic page-flipping arm. No spine-slicing necessary.