Thursday, October 29, 2015

Harvard Law Library Sets Out To Digitize Decisions Going Back To Colonial Times

The NYTimes ran an article yesterday about Harvard Law Library working to digitize a vast trove of cases.

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.

In what some librarians may see as a controversial move, 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.

“You can imagine the way your heart skips a small beat when you put a book under a chopper like that,” he said. After the volumes are scanned, workers reattach the spine to the pages, encase the book in shrink-wrap and, he said, “put it back in the depository for the apocalypse.”

Harvard Law Library sees this as an access to justice mission. Rather than keeping this information just for show, they want to put the primary documents online in a convenient format.

Complete state results will become publicly available this fall for California and New York, and the entire library will be online in 2017, said Daniel Lewis, chief executive and co-founder of Ravel Law, a commercial start-up in California that has teamed up with Harvard Law for the project. The cases will be available at Ravel is paying millions of dollars to support the scanning. The cases will be accessible in a searchable format and, along with the texts, they will be presented with visual maps developed by the company, which graphically show the evolution through cases of a judicial concept and how each key decision is cited in others.

This is a worthwhile endeavor, in part, because more and more libraries are canceling print and moving digital. Many of us are counting on libraries like Harvard to be the keepers of the print that we can call on as needed. This makes that job easier for everyone.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Plain Language For Academics

The Atlantic ran an article recently that is near and dear to the heart of Scribes --The American Society of Legal Writers' mission (disclosure: I am executive director of the organization). The article works to promote plain language.

As noted, the problem of needlessly complex writing—sometimes referred to as an “opaque writing style”—has been explored in fields ranging from law to science. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition.

Take this example:
The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.


A disconnect between researchers and their audiences fuels the problem, according to Deborah S. Bosley, a clear-writing consultant and former University of North Carolina English professor. “Academics, in general, don’t think about the public; they don't think about the average person, and they don't even think about their students when they write,” she says. “Their intended audience is always their peers. That’s who they have to impress to get tenure.” 

And legal academics have the added pressure of not only having to impress their peers but also 2Ls who choose the articles for publication.

So why is plain language such a problem? The years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly.

But it's worth it. In 2006, Daniel Oppenheimer, then a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, published research arguing that the use of clear, simple words over needlessly complex ones can actually make authors appear more intelligent.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Library As "Clinic Of The Soul"

The NYTimes ran an interesting piece over the weekend discussing the reinvention of libraries.

[T]he principal danger facing libraries comes ... from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity. In the United States, while the number of libraries that have disappeared is not remarkably high, public libraries have seen their budgets cut, their stocks culled, their staffs reduced and their opening hours shortened.

Librarians today are forced to take on a variety of functions that their society is too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill, and the use of their scant resources to meet those essential social obligations diminishes their funds for buying new books and other materials. All these activities are good and useful, and may grant libraries a central role in society once again, but we must be prepared to invest the system with more, not less funds, to allow it to reinvent itself. Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves.

Any restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.

I mostly agree with the author's assessment, but instead of guiding readers to their books, we might broaden the primary purpose of librarians as guiding users to their information. This reinvents the role of librarians in a society where books are providing diminishing returns.

There was a time earlier this year when I grew tired of defending the library. I was fatigued at being attacked at all sides with the question of "why do we need libraries when everything is online" and budget constraints. But then I realized that it says something very negative about a group that doesn't find any value in libraries - especially at an academic institution. No one can truly call themselves academics without the resources of a robust library to store the knowledge necessary for academic scholarship.

With this realization, the feeling of being compelled to defend the library went away. The library will always hold intrinsic value, and if I find myself feeling the need to defend the library to someone, it says more about that person than it does about the library.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Library - A New Short Film

The backdrop of this story takes place in a beautiful library that invokes the idealized view of libraries that most librarians hold dear.

From the director: The story told in The Library initially came from wanting to explore the relationship between memory and place. I have strong recollections of my neighbourhood library in Houston, Texas in the US. I can recall the layout, where certain sections of books were, the smells, and the sounds.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Google Books Sufficiently Transforms To Be Deemed Fair Use

Many outlets, including The Chronicle of Higher Ed, note that Google Books recently received another big win in favor of fair use. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit handed Google another victory on Friday in a high-profile case about copyright infringement, declaring that its scanning of books as part of the Google Books project constitutes fair use. In its ruling, a unanimous three-judge panel of the court upheld a federal judge’s 2013 ruling against the Authors Guild, which sued the tech giant in 2005.

As The Atlantic notes, "the Google Books case had seemed to drag on forever: The Authors Guild first filed suit 10 years ago. But the theory behind the eventual ruling was a quarter-century in the making."

In 2004, Google began scanning books—copyrighted and non-copyrighted alike—in academic libraries with the plan of making portions of that material available online for free. Users of Google Books now know how this works: You can search Google’s scanned-book database for a fact or a quote and see part of the page that includes that fact or quote. Google Books will then show you a “snippet” of the book without revealing the rest of the book. 

The Authors Guild, a professional group of published writers which had alleged Google’s scanning of library books and displaying of free “snippets” online violated its members’s copyright. 

But the court has deemed the Google Books project as fair use.

Fair use—which lets people use and adapt copyrighted works without getting the explicit permission of their owner—is a distinctly American concept. Instead of setting out specific statutory exemptions to copyright, as many other countries do, U.S. law issues four broad factors which guide whether the permission-less use of a copyrighted work is fair. This means that fair use can evolve and change over time; it also means that the only real way to find out if something is “fair use” is to ask a federal court.

Ultimately, the court found that Google’s unauthorized digitizing of copyright-protected works, creation of a search functionality, and display of snippets from those works are non-infringing fair uses. The purpose of the copying is highly transformative, the public display of text is limited, and the revelations do not provide a significant market substitute for the protected aspects of the originals.

This is a boon for access of information! We can continue to search the actual texts of books through Google Books to determine, through the snippets, if the book is relevant to us. Once we determine relevance, we can find the book in a local library.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Interactive US Map Showcasing Copyright Laws

Harvard Library has created an interactive map of the copyright policies in all 50 states. The map is color coded for openness.

Federal copyright law says that “Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government.” 17 U.S.C. § 105. This is a broad and clear statement that works of the federal government are in the public domain and are free for use by all, but by specifying works of the United States Government, the statute fails to address the copyright status of any works of state governments, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. It turns out that figuring out whether state documents are copyrighted is a tricky question, and we’ve created this website to help identify the relevant laws in each state.

If you click on the individual states, along with the openness score, you will find:
  • The copyright status (red for copyrightable, green for presumptively public domain)
  • Binding law
  • Advisory sources
  • Related law
  • Specific examples of what the state actually does with its documents

This is a wonderful 50-state survey of copyright as it pertains to documents created by the individual states. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

How To Ask For Feedback On Writing

A post over at Vitae, a Chronicle of Higher Education blog, gives pointers to academic writers on getting a useful critique. 

In anticipation of the first draft conferences with my international LL.M. students, I couldn't help but wish that they knew this information. The writing coach noted that the writer should reflect on what he or she really wants to know about specific aspects of the piece. 

In short, the first step to getting helpful feedback is to define your reader’s job. For example, are you wondering how you might expand the discussion section of your draft? Are you uncertain whether its current organization logically supports your thesis? Are you thinking you need more context to set up your argument? Do you suspect a certain point needs further explication?

Many students come to draft conferences with the notion that they did their (half-hearted) part; now it's the professors turn to tell them how to completely improve their paper to get an A. And when that doesn't happen, you end up with problems after grading with questions like, "why did I get a B? You didn't tell me that in the draft conference...." 

I make a point to warn my students that I will only comment on what they turn in. This is an incentive to turn in a well-developed draft. The more that they give me, the more I will give them. I also tell them to come to me with questions - which parts of the writing assignment did they specifically have trouble with? 

In the future, I may just share this article with them so that they get a better idea of what the feedback process should be. It's not a time to sit back and relax and let someone else do your work for you; it's a time to reflect on your writing and determine where you could use the most help. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Library Maintenance Agreements

There is an interesting thread running on the AALL My Communities email list regarding West Library Maintenance Agreements (LMA).

From the email list:

Responses to Leaving Your LMA “Survey”

This posting appears to have hit a raw nerve in the US law librarian community. I received approximately seventeen responses from law firm, court/government, and academic law librarians. Out of the seventeen, two law libraries have already left their LMA contracts. But, many of you have contemplated doing so. Several of you mentioned that they decided not to cancel their LMA because they received as much as a fifty percent discount on their contract, or they did not cancel because they were concerned about the extra paperwork and hassle of reconciling invoices and monthly statements if they did NOT keep their LMA intact.

The common concerns I saw threading through the attached comments were these:

  • LMA is not flexible enough for me.
  • We need to reduce as much print as possible, but if we reduce any further we will not really see the value in our reduction.
  • We do not know the true cost of our subscription items with the LMA.
  • We do not want to pay for a print copies of materials included in our WestlawNext contract.
  • The prices are still outrageous.
  • The discount on volume purchased does not make sense.

I am all for collection re-balancing and prudent budgeting. I would prefer not to purchase treatises, encyclopedias, or monographs that are also in my WestlawNext plan …especially if the print does not appear to circulate in my library.

Lastly, it seems to me that TR and other publishers do not seem to understand that most law libraries cannot continue to purchase both the print and online (Westlaw) versions of all titles. We are reducing more and more print and need to maintain only the bare bones print items (statutes, regulations, some court rules and a few treatises here and there).

One thing is constant: change and prices going UP!

This email survey is interesting because it highlights an ongoing issue in law libraries nationwide. There is an overall trend to reduce print collections in favor of electronic subscriptions, but the publishers are keeping libraries bound to print with expensive and opaque library maintenance agreements. And as fewer libraries are purchasing print titles, the more expensive the print titles become for all.

Although there is an intrinsic value to a print collection, it is hard for a library to justify the exorbitant cost of print.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Proposed Legislation Regarding Librarian of Congress

With the recent retirement of James Billington as the Librarian of Congress, the United States is set to get its first new Librarian in nearly three decades.

The current librarian, James Billington, has held the title since his appointment by President Reagan in 1987. Though named by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the Librarian doesn’t change with every new White House. After being appointed, Librarians are free to serve as long as they want—that’s why there have been only 13 of them since 1802.

In other words, this will be the first time a new Librarian has been appointed since the invention of the web.

Some interesting facts about the Librarian of Congress:
The Librarian of Congress doesn’t need vocational experience as a librarian or a library science degree to hold the position. He—every Librarian since the position was created in 1802 has been male—is appointed by the President of the United States, must be approved by the Senate, and is responsible for the world’s largest library.

So what exactly does the Librarian of Congress do?
The Librarian is in charge of overseeing the Library of Congress, managing congressional relations, appointing staff—including the Poet Laureate—and supervising administrative work related to budgetary concerns, legal services, communications, and events. The Librarian also oversees the Copyright Office, which in 2013 registered 496,599 claims to copyright and forwarded almost 642,000 copies of works to the Library’s collections. In a 2010 statement, current Librarian of Congress James H. Billington explained that every three years, in accordance with the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) [PDF], the Librarian reexamines the copyright law in relation to new technologies to reassess who is eligible to circumvent the pre-existing regulations “in order to engage in noninfriging uses of works.”

After a 2013 audit found that Billington had not sufficiently managed the Library's technological resources, there is now proposed legislation to limit the term of the Librarian of Congress to 10 years as opposed to a lifetime appointment. This legislation's purpose is to ensure that future Librarians do not fall behind in technological advances.

Just yesterday it was announced that David Mao has been appointed acting Librarian of Congress. While Mao has a wonderful resume, I am a little disappointed that a woman was not chosen for the role - especially considering that a librarian is considered a "pink collar" profession by some.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Library 2.015 All Day 10/20

Library 2.015 is all day on Tuesday, October 20th. Anyone from anywhere in the world can participate for free (as long as they have an Internet connection)! Links for the conference are below. There are 50 sessions and 3 keynotes, and the schedule with connecting information is listed for time zones throughout the world.

The fifth annual Library 2.015 Worldwide Virtual Conference will be held on October 20th, 2015 from 7am - 8pm US Pacific / 10am - 11pm US Eastern.

Everyone is invited to participate in the conference, designed to foster collaboration and knowledge sharing among information professionals worldwide.

The School of Information at San José State University is the founding conference sponsor. Register as a member of the Library 2.0 network to be kept informed of future events!

Quick Links:
All of the session and keynote recordings from previous years are available under the Archives tab above and the Library 2.0 YouTube channel has the past four years' keynote sessions.

This year, we were excited to continue the conversation about the future of libraries with a complementary Library 2.0 Webinar Series. Recordings of those events can be accessed by clicking on the name links.

The conference hashtag is #lib2015

Thursday, October 8, 2015

SCOTUS Addresses Opinion Editing & Link Rot

Supreme Court of the United States

In May 2014, the NYTimes wrote about the Supreme Court continuing to edit opinions after release. Earlier this week, a NYTimes article noted that SCOTUS is now disclosing after-the-fact changes to its opinions.

The move on editing is a major development. Though changes in the court’s opinions after they are issued are common, the court has only very seldom acknowledged them. Many of the changes fix spelling or factual errors. Others are more substantial, amending or withdrawing legal conclusions.

Starting this term, a court statement said, “post-release edits to slip opinions on the court’s website will be highlighted and the date they occur will be noted.” The court’s website includes sample opinions to show how all of this will work. “The location of a revision will be highlighted in the opinion,” the statement said. “When a cursor is placed over a highlighted section, a dialogue box will open to show both old and new text.”

And in other wonderful news, SCOTUS is also addressing the problem of link rot in opinions.

The court said it would also address what it called “the problem of ‘link rot,’ where Internet material cited in court opinions may change or cease to exist.” The court will now collect and post the materials it links to on a dedicated page on its site.