Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Anglo-American Legal Tradition Website -- University of Houston O'Quinn Law Library

The O’Quinn Law Library at the University of Houston hosts the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website (, which is a "free-access site that now makes available 3,000,000 digitized images of documents from the U.K. National Archives between the years 1218 and 1650." The collection is not affiliated with the U.K. National Archives, but rather is a licensee of the National Archives, which allows the library to acquire and use the digitized material in its own website. Copyright stays with the Crown.

The collection has clear collection policy principles. The Law Library has invested significant time and resources in creating this collection. It negotiated for over fifteen years to make the resources in the collection available for free to a general scholarly audience, and it has sought to secure the stability of the site by creating a $90,000 endowment to be "used only (a) to purchase a replacement server or (b) to transition the digitized material into a different format should JPEG images become obsolete." It has a clear vision to continue growing the site at a rate of 400,000 frames each year until it reaches about 8,000,000 images. It seeks to "serve as a model for low-cost, high-volume acquisition of digitized research material made accessible without charge to the public." Its states that a broad range of historians is its target audience as well as "those who find that personal, financial, familial, or physical limitations prevent them from accessing the material at the National Archives in Kew."

In one sense, the collection is heavily curated in that the website contains numerous articles relating to the materials by Robert C. Palmer, Cullen Professor of History and Law at the University of Houston and a helpful link to a tutorial on the U.K. National Archives site on "Palaeography: reading old handwriting 1500-1800." However, in most other senses, the collection is not very well curated, and the curators have made policy decisions that fall far short of the NISO standards. The default standard format for the objects is JPEG, which is a lossy standard. The cameras utilized are off-the-shelf cameras -- Canon Powershot S70 and Powershot S80 -- and the curators are very pleased with them. They state, "Even the acquisitions made with the S70 are sufficiently clear that it is not necessary to re-photograph them at a better resolution." Their rationale for using such cameras is purely based on cost. The website states, "The argument from the beginning has been that such projects should aim to produce images that are of sufficient quality to enable research, not perfect images: resources should be arranged to increase the overall possibilities for research." This reasoning is somewhat understandable, but it is unfortunate and largely self-defeating in the long run, particularly as the images deteriorate. Many images have extraneous materials in them, such as fingers or scanning tags, which detract from the attractiveness of the images.

Besides the articles by Professor Palmer, there is no metadata of any kind relating to the images. Apparently some of the image numbers correspond to published finding aids, but for the uninitiated, the numbers are largely meaningless, and the site does not have any other search engine. The browsing function provides row after row of JPEG thumbnail images. Users can download whole volumes to their computer, which is helpful, but there is no indication of the objects' origins, structure, authenticity, or developmental history actually tied to the digital objects.

The rationale and ideals of the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website are praiseworthy, but it is unfortunate that so much time and energy is being expended on a project that technologically seems to fall far short of its potential. By not providing metadata and better access to the materials, the collection will likely cease to be of interest to the very audiences it seeks to reach.

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