The conference organized by John Palfrey at Harvard Law has been summarized by John himself on his blog and also reflected upon by Joe Hodnicki of Law Librarian Blog ; I sat above where John did his blogging in real time. I had attended on the previous day a follow-up session on collaboration in managing foreign law resources in larger legal research libraries across the United States. As Carl Malamud's Law.gov evolves and the imaginings (and first steps) emerge in projects such as the World Legal Information Institute or perhaps LC's vision of a One World Law Library (OWLL), we were prepared in many ways for Robert Darnton's presentation on the Digital Public Law Library of America (DPLA) and Siva Vaidhyanathan's Human Knowledge Project (HKP).
As one who works as a kind of outlier, as many of us FCIL librarians do, on the fringe of the American law library world (despite discussions and scenarios about "globalization"), I am just as worried about the knowledge that people don't want as about the knowledge everyone wants. The exciting thing about Darnton's project, and its eventual merger perhaps with Europeana, is that for me it creates a space within cyberspace (as does Facebook, after all) but of a different kind such that we can balance mediated with unmediated access to knowledge. In other words, the digitized library of books and other resources, and eventually art and other realia, represents selected and vetted materials that will be discoverable alongside everything from everywhere. Why is this important? Well, I agree with Bob Berring in his conference opening keynote talk when he alluded to crowds being smart, the bottom-up flow of knowledge. But pace Cass Sunstein and others, I am not sure that crowds are always wise. They can produce clever solutions but not wisdom, and even the wisdom of the wise has to be challenged somehow (see the definitions and this very notion as taken by Merriam-Webster from Robert Darnton's work!).
An example from the world of foreign (to Americans) and indeed not-so-foreign law: civil law codes are intended to be succinct and transparent in Napoleon's original vision. However, to apply them to facts requires commentary. Likewise in common law, even if all cases are on Law.gov, how do many cases add up to a solid sense of the law, a statement of it, without some training? I think this is the greatest barrier pro se patrons in our system face. They still have to add up the decisions within a jurisdiction to get an answer, separating dicta out from holdings, etc. I agree that we are now way too far over on the side of privatization and commercialization of aids to this process, but some part of this world of commentary still needs to be there and organized through free hyperlinks between that and primary law. Cyberspace is the ideal place to do it, through two of the themes at this conference, open law and open access in general.
Finally, the digitized library will need to be nurtured in perpetuity, not as to formats and accessibility only but as to its content. If we are only Buy on Demand, we cannot educate. If we only own what people somehow thing they already want, how will they ever learn what they do not want to know? We could be headed for global groupthink despite the seemingly disruptive and subversive qualities of the internet (as recently on display in the Middle East).
Congratulations to John Palfrey and his great staff of librarians, both for a terrific meeting and a tour of their charette devoted to designing parts of this new knowledge database. If law libraries have been called the "lawyers' laboratory" (as recalled by Dick Danner), then he and his staff have undertaken a new and exciting realization of this concept in the world of digital innovation.