Publics and Communities in a Law Library’s Digital Scholarship Studio

Jim Ambuske
University of Virginia School of Law Library

The inclusivity of the digital age compels scholars doing digital work to consider carefully the meaning of “the public.” The public-facing nature of digital archives, especially open-access sites, requires flexibility in that definition, one that encompasses both those within and without the academic community. Much like an author has a particular audience(s) in mind when writing a book or article, what constitutes “the public” shifts depending upon a digital project’s objectives. The archival content itself, along with the creator or project lead’s humanistic goals, and often a sponsoring institution’s mission, shape the choices made in the construction of a digital archive and the dissemination of the knowledge within it. Making those choices clear and transparent on a site, and communicating with the intended communities through blog posts and social media, can make valuable resources to particular “publics” without necessarily excluding others.

I want to discuss these thoughts within the context of the work done in the University of Virginia Law Library’s Special Collections department. Special Collections exists within a Law Library whose core mission is to serve as an institutional repository for the Law School, and make rare materials available to legal scholars, local, national, and international legal communities, and the general public beyond the legal world. The Law School itself has a strong commitment to public service, and is part of a state-owned university with a mandate to promote learning and research in the Commonwealth of Virginia. These factors inform the direction of Special Collections’ digital project strategy. Serving the public, broadly defined, is paramount.
The department has developed a “scholar in the archive” model to evaluate archival collections for their potential digital public history value. It features an interdisciplinary team of historians, lawyers, archivists, and librarians who use their discipline-specific skills and persistent engagement with the relevant literature to make informed judgments about a collection’s significance, the audiences it might reach through digital space, and the level of intellectual, technological, and financial investment required to create a meaningful resource. In general, the team defines its success by developing digital projects that provide access points for a variety of communities. These include professional researchers, lawyers, genealogists, teachers, students, and the interested lay user. Yet, this does not mean that projects freely available on the web assign equal weight to their potential audiences. An archival collection’s content in conjunction with a project director’s intellectual agenda and the original scholarly question at the project’s heart necessarily privileges certain public communities over others.

For example, the Letters of Daniel Meador and Ronald Sokol, a collaborative effort with the University of Alabama Law Library, has a very narrowly defined public in mind. This Drupal site features 133 letters exchanged between a former UVA Law Professor and his former student, an international law professional, over the course of 45 years. The project, complete with introductory essays that contextualize the two men and their letters, speaks most directly to the UVA Law alumni community, and secondarily to the international law community.
By contrast, the Library’s more expansive Scottish Court of Session (SCOS) initiative is designed to serve multiple public, transatlantic audiences in the United States and the United Kingdom. The intellectual intent behind SCOS is to build a digital archive that intervenes in the historiography and drives new research about the British Atlantic World in the era of the American Revolution. Scholars have not fully utilized these documents in part because law libraries and archives index them by case name or legal subject. The documents in UVA’s collection date between 1757 and 1834, and their printed nature makes them unique in the Anglo-American legal culture for most of the period. They contain hidden histories of women and men circulating in the British Atlantic who came in contact with the Scottish legal system. The project entails the digitization of 64-linear feet of court documents, applying OCR to make them fully text-searchable, creating rich descriptive metadata based on human interaction with each case document, and reassembling the cases in digital space. While the project retains the traditional legal subject headings like “bankruptcy” in the metadata, the inclusion of curated headings based on a scholarly assessment of the material, such as “Legacies of the Jacobite Rebellion” or “Tobacco Trade” will signal to users the kind of histories within the documents. While one of SCOS’s goals is to inspire new scholarship, the completed project will also function as an educational platform for non-scholarly audiences concerning Scotland, America, and their intertwined histories through a series of essays and visualizations, and make available spatial and other data useful to genealogists researching family histories.

Both SCOS and the Sokel Letters projects engage their primary audiences by making content available to them for consumption with assistance from staff generated blog or social media posts. The Law Library’s partnership with makes its publics part of the intellectual process through the site’s crowdsourcing transcription software. The Law Library uses this service for four strategic reasons. First, it allows us to make available for transcription a variety of unique manuscripts that speak to different audiences—such as the UVA alumni community, Italian-language speakers, or documentary editors. Second, it enables communities to produce knowledge. The scholarly process can be mystifying to individuals outside of the academy, and in an era of “Fake News” and distrust of facts, crowdsourcing gives people a sense of ownership in the making of history and a better understanding of how we know what we know. Third, by using crowd sourced transcriptions to enhance our cataloging and metadata schemes, community participation helps to build a better library that will in turn better serve its communities. Finally, putting manuscripts on gives Special Collections another means to disseminate is collections and bring attention to the work it is doing in general.
Planning and building out these digital resources also forces us to consider how our publics might use them in ways that we do not intend or who may derive more harm from them than good. The Law Library’s recent acquisition of a new set of Tokyo War Crimes Trial papers raises these questions. The collection features the papers of the chief prosecutor of the Yokohama section of the trials, a lesser-known part of the war crimes proceedings. It complements the Law Library’s existing war crimes trials digital archive. Few people have seen these papers since their creation and they are not yet publically available. They are depositions taken from many Japanese military prisoners charged with war crimes. They are of immense scholarly value, but are disturbingly gruesome. They detail experiments performed on American prisoners of war, prisoner beatings and executions, and in one instance, an act of cannibalism. It is entirely possible that some of the survivors or their families might happen upon the digital version of these papers, opening up old wounds or creating new ones. That possibility, however, must be balanced against the collection’s significance in relationship to the existing digital archive and the trials’ overall contribution to the creation of modern Human Rights and international law. It is critical to make a project’s goals clear to all audiences, especially when it has the means to cause pain to some communities in the interest of revealing new knowledge about the past.
Projects define their publics as much as “the public” drives the formation and execution of a digital project. We should be attentive to this relationship as we conduct our work in the open.


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