Preserving Legal Heritage

HLS 200

Preserving Legal Heritage


For much of its history, the Harvard Law School Library’s mission has included actively collecting, preserving, and making freely available, materials that are in danger of being lost to time or cultural conflict.

Harvard’s expert conservators have long employed traditional and cutting-edge skills and technologies to repair fragile materials, making them safe for researchers to use. More recently, skilled library and imaging staff throughout Harvard are employing a variety of digitization options to make many of our materials available to anyone in the world with an internet connection.

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Here we highlight a few of the library’s collections that document some of the world’s legal heritage. They include some 230 early English and continental manuscripts, nearly all of which are available online; a collection of 170 medieval and early modern English manor rolls, which has recently been digitized; and the Nuremberg Trials collection, which is being digitized over time. Additional collections include the Pre-Soviet Russian collection; and most recently, the Caselaw Access Project, which makes the Library’s entire collection of American case law available to all online.

Early Manuscripts: Magna Carta, Manor Rolls, & Much More

The Harvard Law School Library, with generous financial support from the Ames Foundation, has undertaken an ambitious program to conserve and digitize its entire early manuscript collection.

Bookplate from the library of Tsar Nicholas II_1910 Portfolio_PSZ.tif

Collecting After Conflict: The Pre-Soviet Collection

The Harvard Law School Library’s Pre-Soviet Collection is one of the largest collections of Imperial Russian materials in the U.S.

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  • Bookplate from the library of Tsar Nicholas II_1910 Portfolio_PSZ.tif

    Bookplate from the library of Tsar Nicholas II

    The double headed eagle and monogram indicate that this 1910 portfolio once belonged to the last Tsar, Nicholas II.

  • 7.26.17PostersEtc083_Polnoe portfolio_1910_B.jpg

    Drawings and illustrations to vol. XXX of Polnoe sobranie zakonov, 1910

    This dark green leather portfolio is secured with a red silk tie and used to belong to Tsar Nicholas II.

  • Polnoe_1910_II_7_Coat of Arms_Nicholaevsk_Samara guberniya.jpg

    Portfolio 1910, no. 7, KÐ No. 33359 I

    This page displays the coat of arms of one of seven counties in the Samara guberniya (governorate) of the Russian Empire.

  • Polnoe _1910_II_11_Coat of Arms_Hodzhent,_Samarkand oblast.jpg

    Detail of Portfolio 1910, no. 11, KÐ No. 33359 V

    Coat of arms of the city of Hodzhent in the Samarkand Oblast. The three silkworms represent its location on the Silk Road.

  • Opening of Pre-Soviet volume

    Zakonoproekt o svobodi︠e︡ sovi︠e︡sti: 1907-1908, materīaly, [Saint Petersburg: s.n.,190-?]

    This volume has proposed legislation on matters related to religious freedom. Shown is a bill about to mixed-religion marriages.

The Harvard Law School Library’s Pre-Soviet collection demonstrates an example of its commitment to collecting, preserving, and providing access to items of world legal heritage that might otherwise be inaccessible. Following the Russian Revolution, the fate of the holdings of Russia’s museums and libraries was uncertain. As early as 1918, librarians at Harvard expressed concern about the fate of the Russian collections and were eager to acquire the at-risk material. This became possible in the 1920s and 1930s, as Soviet state export agencies collected books and artifacts from across Russia to identify items that were considered duplicative or otherwise unsuitable for libraries. The export agencies offered books and artifacts for sale in the West in order to fund the new government’s priorities. By the end of the 1930s, the HLS Library had acquired one of the largest collections of pre-Soviet Russian legal material in the US. For the past 85 years, the collection has provided researchers in the United States access to the primary materials of Imperial Russia.

Pre-Soviet materials are rare in the United States. Before widespread digitization, microfilm was the format of choice for expanding access while preserving delicate originals. In 1989, Harvard received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and began the huge project of microfilming the majority of the Pre-Soviet collection, which numbers in the thousands.

Beginning in the 1860s, the Russian government published a series of lithographs illustrating everything from military and civil uniforms to cavalry maneuvers, to accompany the text of its compiled laws: the Polnoe sobranīe zakonov Rossīĭskoĭ Imperīi. Lithographs in the print set of the laws were in basic-black-and-white, but luxurious full-color lithographs, some of them-hand colored, were housed in supplementary leather portfolios produced for public display and presentation to the imperial libraries. The Harvard Law School Library has an almost complete set of these portfolios, including four with imperial markings. The portfolios are made of dark green, blind tooled leather and are secured with green or red silk ties. The cover of each portfolio is adorned with the stamp of the Russian Imperial eagle.

The Nuremberg Trials Project

The Harvard Law School Library's Nuremberg Trials Project is an open-access initiative to create and present digitized images or full-text versions of the Library's Nuremberg documents, descriptions of each document, and general information about the trials.

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An Ongoing Mission: The Official Gazette of Syria

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al-Jarīdah al-rasmīyah - al-Jumhūrīyah al-ʻArabīyah al-Sūrīyah
/ Journal officiel de République syrienne
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
HOLLIS 2345785

الجريدة الرسمية - الجمهورية العربية السورية
دمشق، الجمهورية العربية السورية

War, revolution, regime change, and other conflicts continue to present risks to library collections. As the importance of a collection changes with world events, expanding access becomes urgent. While reviewing the Harvard Law School Library’s collection of gazettes for preservation and digitization, library staff realized that the Library holds a nearly comprehensive collection of the French and Arabic editions of the Official Gazette of Syria. In an earlier project, Yale digitized its collection of these editions up to 1949. The Library is now prioritizing scanning both editions from 1950 onward and filling any earlier gaps.