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

Eric Nystrom, David S. Tanenhaus

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)150-167
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Journal of Legal History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Law


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