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The Future of Digital Legal History: No Magic, No Silver Bullets

19 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2015  

Eric C. Nystrom

Arizona State University

David S. Tanenhaus

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law

Date Written: December 9, 2015

Abstract

A deceptively simple question — how many juvenile justice laws did the 50 states enact during the 1990s? — was the genesis of our collaboration and this essay. Our attempt to answer this and related questions accurately and efficiently prompted us to consider the significance of digital computing for the field of American legal history. In this essay, we first analyze the challenges and opportunities in applying digital techniques to legal history that include the comparability of sources, completeness of source material, and how to make “data” out of unstructured text. We then sketch some organizing concepts that guided our approach, such as the value of large data sets, computational transparency, and an explicit grounding in the methods and concerns of the historical profession. We describe our particular tools and methods that include full text document search in a custom database, document similarity comparison and clustering at a variety of scales, and weighted term ranking. To conclude we assess what we learned from trying to answer empirical questions about juvenile justice lawmaking during the 1990s, and reflect on the implications of digital computing for legal historians.

Suggested Citation

Nystrom, Eric C. and Tanenhaus, David S., The Future of Digital Legal History: No Magic, No Silver Bullets (December 9, 2015). Am J Leg Hist (2016) 56 (1): 150-167; UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2701539 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2701539

Eric C. Nystrom (Contact Author)

Arizona State University ( email )

7271 E. Sonoran Arroyo Mall
Mesa, AZ 85212
United States
480-727-1031 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://ericnystrom.org

David S. Tanenhaus

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law ( email )

4505 South Maryland Parkway
Box 451003
Las Vegas, NV 89154
United States
702-895-3549 (Phone)
702-895-1782 (Fax)

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