Harvard Gives Free Online Access to 40 Million Pages of U.S. Case Law: Explore 6.4 Million Cases Dating Back to 1658

There was a time—a strange time in pop culture history, I’ll grant—when legal dramas were everywhere in television, popular fiction, and film. Next to the barn-burning courtroom set pieces in A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill, for example, scenes of lawyers poring over case law with loosened ties, high heels kicked off, and martinis and scotches in hand were rendered with maximum dramatic tension, despite the fact that case law is a nigh unreadable jumble of jargon, citations, archaic diction and syntax, etc… anything but brimming with cinematic potential.

Do law students and legal scholars disagree with this assessment? It’s beside the point, many might say. The centuries-old web of case law—reinforcing, contradicting, overturning, creating patterns and structures—is the very stuff the law is made of.




It’s a referential tradition, and when most of the documents are in the hands of only a few people, only those people understand why the law works the way it does. The rest of us are left to wonder why the legal system is so Byzantine and incomprehensible. Real life rarely has the clarity of a satisfying courtroom drama.

Last year, The Harvard Crimson reported a seemingly revolutionary shift in that dynamic, when Harvard Law’s Caselaw Access Project “digitized more than 40 million pages of U.S. state, federal, and territorial case law documents from the Law School library,” dating back to 1658.  The Crimson issued one caveat: the full database is accessible to the public, but “users are limited to five hundred full case texts per day.” Plan your intense, scotch-soaked all-nighters accordingly.

Is this altruism, civic duty, a move in the right direction of freeing publicly funded research for public use?  Several Harvard Law faculty have said as much. “Case law is the product of public resources poured into our court system,” writes Professor I. Glenn Cohen. “It’s great that the public will now have better access to it.” It is indeed, Professor Christopher T. Bavitz says: “If we want to ensure that people have access to justice, that means that we have to ensure that they have access to cases. The text of cases is the law.”

The law is not a set of abstract principles, theories, or rules, in other words, but a series of historical examples, woven together into a social narrative. Machines can analyze data from The Caselaw Access Project far faster and more efficiently than any human, giving us broader views of legal history and precedent, and greatly expanding public understanding of the system. Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab has itself already created several apps for just this purpose.

There’s California Wordclouds, which shows the most-used words in California caselaw between 1852 and 2015, and Witchcraft in Caselaw, which does what it says, with an interactive map of all appearances of witchcraft in cases across the country. There’s “Fun Stuff” too, like a Caselaw Limerick Generator, a visual database that analyzes colors in case law, and “Gavelfury,” which analyzes “all instances of ‘!,’” giving us gems like “Do you remember if it was murder!” from Bowling v. State, 229 Ark. 876 (Dec. 22, 1958).

One new graphing tool, Historical Trends, announced in June, makes it easy for users to “visualize word usage in court opinions over time,” writes the Library Innovation Lab. (Examples include comparing the “frequency of ‘compensatory damages’ and ‘punitive damages’ in New York and California” and comparing “privacy” with “publicity.”) Anyone can build their own data visualization using their own search terms. (Learn how and get started here.) Case law may never be glamorous, exactly, or fun to read, but it may be far more interesting, and empowering, than we imagine.

Be aware that the Caselaw Access Project could still find ways to restrict or monetize access, for a short time, at least. “The project was funded partly through a partnership with Ravel, a legal analytics startup founded by two Stanford Law School students,” reports the Crimson. The company “earned ‘some commercial rights’ through March 2024 to charge for greater access to files.” The startup has issued no word on whether this will happen. In the meantime, public interest legal scholars may wish to do their own digging through this trove of caselaw to better understand the public’s right to information of all kinds.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover the Spelling Dictionary That Ludwig Wittgenstein Created for Elementary School Students

He only published two books of philosophy, and only one of them in his lifetime, but Ludwig Wittgenstein’s influence on 20th century thought is incalculable. Both of his books, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the posthumous Philosophical Investigations, constitute major turning points in analytic philosophy—the one inspiring the 1920s logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, the other repudiating Wittgenstein’s earlier thought and invigorating mid-century pragmatism and the Ordinary Language school.

“By the 1930s,” notes Tim Rayner at Philosophy for Change, “Wittgenstein had decided” that the theory of language he had advanced in the Tractatus “was quite wrong. He devoted the rest of his life to explaining why.” This marked a dramatic shift away from the work that first made him famous, but Wittgenstein never did anything halfway. After publishing the Tractatus—partly composed while he fought in World War I—the Austrian son of a wealthy Viennese industrialist announced that he had solved all of the problems in philosophy. Nothing more needed to be said on the matter.




He “retired” to try his hand at several other trades, including grade school teacher, for a period of about six years in rural villages in Austria. “By the time he decided to teach,” Spencer Robins notes at The Paris Review, “Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive.” He couldn’t have cared less. “Convinced he was a moral failure, he took extreme steps to change his circumstances, divesting himself of his enormous family fortune” and choosing a profession “influenced by a romantic idea of what it would be like to work with peasants—an idea he’d gotten from reading Tolstoy.”

Wittgenstein was an unsparing taskmaster, by all accounts. His brief elementary teaching career ended abruptly in 1926 when he viciously attacked a student. While his personality did not suit him to the role at all, his pedagogy was apparently very effective. Wittgenstein  “engaged his students in a sort of ‘project-based learning’ that wouldn’t be out of place in the best elementary classrooms today,” writes Robins. In the last years of teaching, he worked with his students to produce what is technically his second published book—Wörterbuch für Volksschulen, a German spelling dictionary for elementary schools.

One of the shocks that awaited the philosopher when he arrived in rural schools was the expense of books, and students’ inability to obtain them. “I had never realized dictionaries would be so mightily expensive,” he told educationalist Ludwig Hansel. “I think, if I live long enough, I will produce a small dictionary for elementary schools.” Often a pragmatist in life, if not always in his thought, Wittgenstein took the opportunity to turn this promise into a teachable moment, testing drafts of his dictionary in the classroom. “The improvement of spelling was astonishing,” he remarked.

The dictionary, and Wittgenstein’s teaching methods in general during this period, “reveal his continued interest in the philosophy of language and its practical, everyday manifestations,” as Désirée Weber, Assistant Professor of Political Theory at the University of Wooster in Ohio, writes at the British Wittgenstein Society site. Copies of the 42-page book are extremely rare. The page above comes from a set of proof pages discovered and examined by Weber. The pages show the philosopher tailoring his reference guide to the world his students knew and the language they already spoke.

“Although there is some question” which, or whether, the various editorial marks are in Wittgenstein’s own hand, “the contents of the dictionary and the corrections yield a fascinating view of the words that Wittgenstein deemed central to the forms of life and language-games in which his students were immersed.” He captured “the specificity of the rural Austrian dialect,” Weber writes at the Wittgenstein Initiative, as well as “words that pertained to cultural practices that were part of their community and with which they would have been well acquainted.”

Wittgenstein elaborates his practical purpose in an introduction, showing his intent to initiate his students into their “language-using community” and into “the responsibility this carries,” Weber writes. The project also shows him engaging in the theoretical work that would occupy him for the rest of his career.

Related Content:

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Short, Strange & Brutal Stint as an Elementary School Teacher

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stream Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a BBC Production Featuring Derek Jacobi (Free for a Limited Time)

A nice tip from Metafilter: “BBC Radio 4 is airing Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in 10 episodes running to about nine hours in total. With a starry cast headed by Derek Jacobi as the Narrator, the adaptation is written by U.S.-born, UK-based playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker.”

The entire audio collection will remain streamable for the next 28 days. Here are the individual episodes:

Episodes 1 and 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Find more audio books in our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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16-Year-Old Marcel Proust Tells His Grandfather About His Misguided Adventures at the Local Brothel

Marcel Proust Fills Out a Questionnaire in 1890: The Manuscript of the ‘Proust Questionnaire’

How Dave Brubeck’s Time Out Changed Jazz Music

Music video essay maestro Polyphonic is back. What I dig about his videos is that he takes on some of the true warhorses of modern popular music and manages to find something new to say. Or at least he presents familiar stories in a new and modern way to an audience who may be hearing ELO, Queen, or Neil Young for the first time.

His latest upload explores Dave Brubeck’s groundbreaking jazz album Time Out. This is an album that regularly tops best-of lists, gets reissued constantly, and is so ubiquitous in some circles that it’s hard, like Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, to hear the album with fresh ears.




Polyphonic touches on something right at the beginning of the video that deserves a full video essay of its own–the State Department’s mission to send American jazz musicians around the world as cultural ambassadors. This is a part of history that has receded from memory, but had a major influence not just on Brubeck, but so many records at that time. Brubeck joined Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie on a musical tour that reached many countries behind the Iron Curtain, and were able to critique America’s racist history while also promoting its musical culture. (There’s a fine PBS documentary on the mission available here, if your region supports the video.)

But for the purposes of this video essay, and regarding Brubeck’s career, it was the polyrhythms and folk music that he heard while traveling through countries like Turkey (from which he developed “Blue Rondo a la Turk”) that remained with him on his return.

Time Out was Brubeck’s fourteenth album for Columbia Records, but his breakthrough. Up to that point he and his quartet had released a number of live albums recorded at colleges (which promoted a safe but hip studious kind of jazz) and several albums of jazz covers, such as Dave Digs Disney. But Time Out was a fully formed concept album of sorts: an exploration into time signatures that jazz hadn’t really touched yet.

As Polyphonic points out, Joe Morello, Brubeck’s drummer, was indeed well versed in complicated time signatures from his classical background as a violinist. It was Morello who experimented with a groove in 5/4 time that became the backbone of “Take Five.” Brubeck knew a good thing when he heard it and gives Morello one of the best solos of the entire LP.

Best of all, Time Out is one those classic albums because of how it mixes the experimental with the commercial, a hard feat in any era, but even more impressive in that best of all jazz years, 1959. (Brubeck continued to explore time signatures on this album’s sequel Time Further Out, which is also recommended).

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Why Route 66 Became America’s Most Famous Road

Most Americans know Route 66, but sometimes it seems like non-Americans know it better. I happen to be an American living outside America myself, and whenever conversations turn to the subject of road trips in my homeland, it’s only a matter of time before I hear the usual question: “Have you driven Route 66?” Originally commissioned in 1926, the 2,448-mile road from Chicago to Santa Monica enjoyed about three decades of primacy before its eclipse by the Interstate Highway System. Quaint though Route 66 may now seem compared to that vast postwar infrastructural project, it somehow hasn’t quite let go of its hold on the American imagination, and even less so the world’s imagination about America.

“Route 66 has been in the shadows twice as long as it was in the spotlight,” says Vox’s Phil Edwards, “but there’s still this energy around it.” In the video “Why Route 66 Became America’s Most Famous Road,” Edwards does the iconic road trip himself, and along the way tells the story behind what John Steinbeck called “the mother road, the road of flight.”




This naturally involves an abundance of both cinematically empty landscapes, flamboyantly unhealthy cuisine, and richly kitschy Americana, the kind of thing featured in Atlas Obscura’s robust Route 66 category. Edwards visits colossal cowboy statues, the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum (“horses must be dead to be considered”), and a roadhouse where, if you “eat 72 ounces of steak and sides in under an hour, you get it for free” — and those are just in Texas.

Route 66 can’t but appeal to American history buffs, but in recent decades it has also attracted connoisseurs of desolation. Originally shaped by a variety of lobbying interests, including an especially vigorous promoter of Tulsa, Oklahoma named Cyrus Avery, the “Main Street of America” turned many of the hamlets along its path into, if not destinations, then places worth spending the night. Fascinating artifacts remain of Route 66’s vibrant midcentury “motel culture,” but not even the most America-besotted visitors from foreign lands could overlook how thoroughly history seems to have passed most of these places by. I saw this first-hand myself when I drove across the United States on Interstate 40, the continent-spanning freeway that follows Route 66 in places and certainly hastened its demise. You can see it and much else on Route 66 besides in the “aerial documentary” above.

Edwards’ interviewees include denizens of Route 66 making a go of reversing the decline of this 34-years-decommissioned road, such as the proprietor of the Motel Safari, a veritable 1950s time-capsule in Tucumcari, New Mexico. He also talks to the editor of Route 66 News, an elderly Texan lady with a thing for dinosaurs, a modern-day Cyrus Avery looking to promote the glories of Route 66’s Oklahoma stretch, and Route 66 road-trippers of various ages and nationalities, including a guy who actually ate that 72-ounce steak within an hour. “There was dessert as far as the eye can see,” says one still-marveling young European. He almost surely meant desert, but as far as the charms of America’s open roads go, both interpretations are equally true.

Related Content:

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Download Digitized Copies of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, the Pre-Civil Rights Guide to Traveling Safely in the U.S. (1936-66)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Mister Rogers Demonstrates How to Cut a Record

When I was a little boy, I thought the greatest thing in the world would be to be able to make records. — Fred Rogers

By 1972, when the above episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired, host Fred Rogers had already cut four records, including the hit-filled A Place of Our Own.

But a childlike curiosity compelled him to explore on camera how a virgin disc could become that most wondrous thing—a record.

So he borrowed a “special machine”—a Rek-O-Kut M12S overhead with an Audax mono head, for those keeping score at home—so he could show his friends, on camera, “how one makes records.”

This technology was already in decline, ousted by the vastly more portable home cassette recorder, but the record cutter held far more visual interest, yielding hair-like remnants that also became objects of fascination to Mister Rogers.




What we wouldn’t give to stumble across one of those machines and a stash of blank discs in a thrift store…

Wait, scratch that, imagine running across the actual platter Rogers cut that day!

Though we’d be remiss if we failed to mention that a member of The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls, a forum devoted to “record-cutting deviants, renegades, professionals & experimenters,” claims to have had an aunt who worked on the show, and according to her, the “reproduction” was faked in post.

(“It sounded like they recorded the repro on like an old Stenorette rim drive reel to reel or something and then piped that back in,” another commenter promptly responds.)

The Trolls’ episode discussion offers a lot of vintage audio nerd nitty gritty, as well as an interesting history of the one-off self-recoded disc craze.

The mid-century general public could go to a coin-operated portable sound booth to record a track or two. Spoken word messages were popular, though singers and bands also took the opportunity to lay down some grooves.

Radio stations and recording studios also kept machines similar to the one Rogers is seen using. Sun Records’ secretary, Marion Keisker, operated the cutting lathe the day an unknown named Elvis Presley showed up to cut a lacquered disc for a fee of $3.25.

The rest is history.

More recently, The ShinsThe Kills, and Seasick Steve, below, recorded live direct-to-acetate records on a modified 1953 Scully Lathe at Nashville’s Third Man Records.

(Legend has it that James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World” was cut on that same lathe… Cut a hit of your own during a tour of Third Man’s direct-to-acetate recording facilities.)

via @wfmu

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine, current issue the just-released #60.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

What Happens To Your Body & Brain If You Don’t Get Sleep? Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains

As an insomniac in a morning person’s world, I wince at sleep news, especially from Matthew Walker, neuroscientist, Berkeley professor, and author of Why We Sleep. Something of a “sleep evangelist,” as Berkeley News calls him (he prefers “sleep diplomat“), Walker has taken his message on the road—or the 21st century equivalent: the TED Talk stages and animated explainer videos.

One such video has Walker saying that “sleep when you’re dead” is “mortally unwise advice… short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Or as he elaborates in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep.”




Yeesh. Does he lay it on thick? Nope, he’s got the evidence and wants to scare us straight. It’s a psychological tactic that hasn’t always worked so well, although next to “sleep or die” sermons, there’s good news: sleep, when harnessed properly (yes, somewhere in the area of 8 hours a night) can also be a “superpower.” Sleep does “wonderfully good things… for your brain and for your body,” boosting memory, concentration, and immunity, just for starters.

But back to the bad….

In the Tech Insider video above, Walker delivers the grim facts. As he frequently points out, most of us need to hear it. Sleep deprivation is a serious epidemic—brought on by a complex of socio-economic-politico-technological factors you can probably imagine. See Walker’s comparisons (to the brain as an email inbox and a sewage system) animated, and learn about how lack of sleep contributes to a 24% increase in heart attacks and numerous forms of cancer. (The World Health Organization has recently “classified nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen.”)

On the upside, rarely is health science so unambiguous. If nutritionists could only give us such clear-cut advice. Whether we’d take it is another question. Learn more about the multiple, and sometimes fatal, consequences of sleep deprivation in the animated TED-Ed video above.

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Marilyn Monroe Recounts Her Harrowing Experience in a Psychiatric Ward (1961)


By the end of 1960, Marilyn Monroe was coming apart.

She spent much of that year shooting what would be her final completed movie – The Misfits (see a still from the trailer above). Arthur Miller penned the film, which is about a beautiful, fragile woman who falls in love with a much older man. The script was pretty clearly based on his own troubled marriage with Monroe. The production was by all accounts spectacularly punishing. Shot in the deserts of Nevada, the temperature on set would regularly climb north of 100 degrees. Director John Huston spent much of the shoot ragingly drunk. Star Clark Gable dropped dead from a heart attack less than a week after production wrapped. And Monroe watched as her husband, who was on set, fell in love with photographer Inge Morath. Never one blessed with confidence or a thick skin, Monroe retreated into a daze of prescription drugs. Monroe and Miller announced their divorce on November 11, 1960.

A few months later, the emotionally exhausted movie star was committed by her psychoanalyst Dr. Marianne Kris to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. Monroe thought she was going in for a rest cure. Instead, she was escorted to a padded cell. The four days she spent in the psych ward proved to be among the most distressing of her life.




In a riveting 6-page letter to her other shrink, Dr. Ralph Greenson, written soon after her release, she detailed her terrifying experience.

There was no empathy at Payne-Whitney — it had a very bad effect — they asked me after putting me in a “cell” (I mean cement blocks and all) for very disturbed depressed patients (except I felt I was in some kind of prison for a crime I hadn’t committed. The inhumanity there I found archaic. They asked me why I wasn’t happy there (everything was under lock and key; things like electric lights, dresser drawers, bathrooms, closets, bars concealed on the windows — the doors have windows so patients can be visible all the time, also, the violence and markings still remain on the walls from former patients). I answered: “Well, I’d have to be nuts if I like it here.”

Monroe quickly became desperate.

I sat on the bed trying to figure if I was given this situation in an acting improvisation what would I do. So I figured, it’s a squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I admit it was a loud squeak but I got the idea from a movie I made once called “Don’t Bother to Knock”. I picked up a light-weight chair and slammed it, and it was hard to do because I had never broken anything in my life — against the glass intentionally. It took a lot of banging to get even a small piece of glass – so I went over with the glass concealed in my hand and sat quietly on the bed waiting for them to come in. They did, and I said to them “If you are going to treat me like a nut I’ll act like a nut”. I admit the next thing is corny but I really did it in the movie except it was with a razor blade. I indicated if they didn’t let me out I would harm myself — the furthest thing from my mind at that moment since you know Dr. Greenson I’m an actress and would never intentionally mark or mar myself. I’m just that vain.

During her four days there, she was subjected to forced baths and a complete loss of privacy and personal freedom. The more she sobbed and resisted, the more the doctors there thought she might actually be psychotic. Monroe’s second husband, Joe DiMaggio, rescued her by getting her released early, over the objections of the staff.

You can read the full letter (where she also talks about reading the letters of Sigmund Freud) over at Letters of Note. And while there, make sure you pick up a copy of the very elegant Letters of Note book.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in August 2015.

Related Content:

The 430 Books in Marilyn Monroe’s Library: How Many Have You Read?

Marilyn Monroe Reads Joyce’s Ulysses at the Playground (1955)

Marilyn Monroe Reads Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1952)

Marilyn Monroe Explains Relativity to Albert Einstein (in a Nicolas Roeg Movie)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

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