Challenges for doing global legal history

Header History and the Law

It is one thing to praise the virtues of global legal history, but the roads to start doing global legal history are often challenging. Are there any roads? How much pioneer efforts are needed to make this approach sensible and fruitful, or should we allow for risks and pitfalls? In this post I will look at a project which is in fact more a consortium of projects dealing with themes in several periods and locations in Asia. On my blog I have looked sometimes at individual countries, in particular Japan and Nepal. I mentioned resources concerning India’s legal history in a post about the projects of the Center for Research Libraries, but these posts did not convey an overall view of research concerning legal history in Asia. For contemporary law in Asia you might want to check my 2014 post about the World Legal Information Institute. In other words, it can do no harm to focus here on Asia.

At the center of this post is History and the Law: Exchanges of Economic, Legal and Political Ideas, a joint project between Cambridge University and Harvard University. There are two websites for this project, and at some turns you are guided suddenly to the Harvard website or vice versa. The Center for History and Economics of both universities is home to this large-scale project.

Legal histories at multiple levels

The subtitle of History and the Law offers a clue to the approach favored by the teams of Harvard and Cambridge. “Exchange of Economic, Legal and Political Ideas” sets the scene for bringing together concepts and ideas from different spheres. A second thing to note at the outset is the research network of the project which is cast much wider than just scholars working at these two famous universities. A third thing to note at the outset is perhaps that the latest scholarly event within the network happened in 2014. The last event was probably the two-day workshop on Petitions and Political Cultures in South Asia (Cambridge, Magdalen College, June 4-5, 2014). However, even in its dormant state it is well worth looking at some key elements. I would have expected here to find an overview of published results, reports on workshops and possibly a number of selected bibliographies. Nevertheless it seems to me most interesting to look beyond these wishes.

The section Reading Legal Documents contains just one text. The introduction of Fei-Hsien Wang’s paper gives a nice and compact example of the working of copyright in early twentieth-century China when each publisher had to get for each publication a separate act from the local authorities acknowledging its copyright. The history of copyright law is also part of another project at Cambridge. The section with interviews contains five interviews. Many scholars will immediately recognize Mitra Sharafi (School of Law, University of Wisconsin), creator of the marvellous blog South Asian Legal History Resources. Her blog is simply the clearing house and portal for anyone doing serious research in this field, in particular for India’s legal history. Sharafi’s selection of digital and digitized resources can stand any comparison.

The main projects which seemed to me at first to be conceived within the framework of History and the Law as daughter projects with separate websites are Sites of Asian Interaction: Networks, Ideas, Archives and Cordial Exchanges: Britain and France in the World since 1700. On closer inspection they should be seen as sister projects, even when in particular the Asia project does deal also with legal history. Both are certainly worth looking at on their own. Where I offer criticism here below these do not touch upon these two projects.

The section with digital resources at History and the Law comparison to other websites and portals invites just such comparison. There is a general section with only six websites. Alas the link to the fine guide of Harvard Law School to online legal materials in open access is currently broken, no doubt a victim of the current redesigning project of its website. Maintaining more than 130 online research guides is a feat in itself. The bibliographical section brings you just four web links, all outside History and the Law, but the sheer weight of Mitra Sharafi’s blog does something indeed to redress the balance. At the website of the University of British Columbia the bibliography on Law and the South Asian Diaspora created by Renisa Mawani has simply vanished. Before going to the main section let’s note the website at Cambridge of the Center for History and Economics with a digital version consolidated index of admissions to the Inns of Court from ‘Indian’ and other non-British-born entrants between 1859 and 1887. The very label “CHE Projects” where you find this creates an expectation for more.

Many resources?

The major part of the corner with digital resources at History and the Law gives us five sections dealing with digital archives and collections, organized in five geographical sections (Europe, USA, East Asia, South Asia and Africa). At this point it is perhaps better to describe this website more as uncompleted than as dormant. Just five links in the European section, with three of them for the United Kingdom, is close to nothing. The link to the project for the Privy Councils Papers Online is not correct. You will want to visit the website at Exeter, and you might like to visit the Exeter Imperial and Global Forum. The “US section” luckily does not only mention projects in the United States, but just mentioning a single Canadian blog is simply poor. Law and Revolution is the research blog of Malick Ghachem (School of Law, University of Maine) where the revolutionary period on Haiti around 1800 is the starting point for discussing the Atlantic revolutionary tradition. With eight links the South Asia section is a bit better, even if it focuses solely on India. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Goa are absent. With a few letters removed from the end of its URL the link to the digital library of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics does work properly. The section on East Asia does refer to project concerning China, Taiwan, Japan and Mongolia. Just seven links is very meagre, but most of them are not easily found at all. Let the record show the section for Africa contains a single item, the Slavery and Manumission Manuscripts of Timbuctu (Center for Research Libraries, Chicago). Finally the links section contains seven links, among them three blogs, and I was truly surprised to find here even my own blog.

Should one really wonder about this state of affairs? In the case of Mali you might have a look at a post published here in 2012. A few years ago the web page with links for British legal history of the Law Faculty at Cambridge simply disappeared, and my friendly question to bring it back to life went unanswered twice. At my own legal history portal Rechtshistorie I have saved a version from 2012 from the Internet Archive. Of course I searched for it again today at both the websites of Cambridge’s law faculty and the Squire Law Library, but in vain. I can imagine a sad explanation about the missing overview and the poor quality of the lists presented here, such as illness of a webmaster, but I had rather not speculate here anymore. The project at Cambridge and Harvard ran mainly between 2004 and 2009, and the growth of available digital resources is certainly thus strong that it is hard to imagine the number of projects simply not existing five or ten years ago. The disappearance of websites during the same period is a necessary reminder that not all things online will reach eternity.

The Harvard website of History and the Law has a good page telling about the project’s objective to look at its themes in the sequel of the vogue for the transnational turn and the 2008 banking crisis. I had not yet seen the virtual exhibition Bubbles, Panics & Crashes. A Century of Financial Crises, 1830s-1930s of the Baker Library at Harvard Business School, a product of the Cambridge-Harvard project Exchanges of Political and Economic Ideas since 1760. The Baker Library has also created a digital collection showing some of the riches of the South Sea Bubble collection, and a project site aiming explicitly at comparing the financial upheavals in 1720 with current events, Historical Returns. Linking Ideas Across Time.

Online or in print

How can we explain most convincingly the somewhat sad state of affairs of the websites of this joint project? I would like to use Occam’s razor to provide here a clear explanation. I think it all boils down to a complicated joint program with too much actors and factors influencing its success. In an age where success is more and more measured by its very online presence this project might have scored very high in terms of the international network supporting the project, the range of themes, regions, and periods, and probably of publications in peer-reviewed journals, but this does not make it immediately visible online. If it has been a success you would by now expect to see a full-blown online presence with up-to-date information instead of two rather empty virtual showcases which impair the reputation of both centers. In a way this might offer some consolation to all scholars keen on organizing and steering similar projects, and in particular those who have seen the failure of such projects. History and the Law somehow stands in between two worlds where the printed world and virtual world today are merging together. Even if you are successful it depends on so many factors to be seen as successful.

In my experience you will need a team to create overviews of digital resources which combine a sensible approach, consistent quality, coverage and longevity. The number of daily visitors for Rechtshistorie tells me something about the need for such overviews. The section for Asia on my page for digital libraries covers just one aspect of digital resources, even when I sometimes deliberately put in digitized archival records to make up for any real or supposed lacunae.

Logo Sejarah Nusantara

A number of countries in Asia is still absent on this page. From a Dutch point of view the very small presence of Indonesia is just inexplicable. The National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta has at the very least digitized a number of rare books which should have captured my attention. Last year the digital collection Sejarah Nusantara of the Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia was launched with documents and archival records created between 1600 and 1800. Following the blog of the South Asian Libraries Group is only one of the remedies I propose. A team would long ago have made at least some provisions. Working to create and maintain my website and this blog contributes in many ways to my views on legal history. Facing mistakes, omissions and gaps is part and parcel of that experience.

For some countries and subjects it can be difficult to track down relevant online resources. Try searching with The Inevitable Search Engine for websites containing links to the major digital libraries for South Asia and East Asia… The best I can do is to promise to keep up the good work, and to invite you most cordially and sincerely to bring relevant resources to my attention. One of the qualities I strive for at my website is accompanying each link with a concise description. In this way I offer at least more than just a list. A number of links often appears here before I put them at the right page of my portal site. At the end of this post it seems to me worth repeating: If you want to make an international project successful today in itself and in the eyes of the general public, you have to pay careful attention to its virtual presence. Choosing a webmaster or – preferably – creating a web team should not be an afterthought but an integral and decisive part of your plans and actions.

A postscript

The link to the guide for free legal research resources of Harvard law School Library does work again. In particular the section on foreign and international law is worth checking.

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