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Online Legal History Sources

Getting Started

Reference Works

Harvard Law School Research Guides

More detailed resources on legal history can be found in these pages and research guides created by Harvard Law School Librarians:

Other Online Research Guides

These guides from other law schools may be helpful when identifying resources. Links may be restricted, but we may have Harvard access to the databases. Check Harvard E-Resources for access.

Books and Theses

Legal Texts & Treatises

Early treatises can be an important source for discovering the law and early cases.

General Historical Collections

These comprehensive collections of online texts include treatises, pamphlets and primary legal materials.

Journals and Newspaper Articles

Indexes, Bibliographies and Abstracts

Historical Newspaper Sources

Journal Collections

Finding Cases

Sources for Early Case Law

Several historical databases include early case reporters and collections of laws:

Using Nominative Reporters

Case citations from early works can be hard to decipher. Early collections of case decisions were cited by the name of the clerk who reported the cases, and citation formats were not standard.

Here are some tips for finding and interpreting early nominative and non-standard citations:

  • Check the source of your citation to see if the author provided a table or guide to the abbreviations.
  • Use an abbreviation index,  or dictionary to decipher difficult abbreviations.
  • If possible determine the jurisdiction.
  • For U.S. Federal and State cases, check Table 1 of the Bluebook.
  • Try finding the case cited in a more modern source with standardized citations.
  • Search case databases by party name instead of citation. Look for  alternate spellings of the party names.

Subject Digests

Digests are a useful tool for finding case citations organized by subject. Digest can cover a court, a jurisdiction or a subject. 

Deciphering Legal Abbreviations

Notable and Historical Trials

Accounts and documents for notable trials were sometimes published in books, newspapers or pamphlets. Others have been gathered into historical databases. Other trial documents can be found in libraries and archives.

  • Search newspapers for accounts of the trial. This research guide gives tips for using Harvard's newspaper collection
  • Search historical full-text databases. 
  • Search the web - schools, universities, historical societies, museums and other interest groups sometimes post information on famous trials. 

HLSL Historical & Special Collections

Our Historical and Special Collections department has also digitized some significant and historically interesting trial records and accounts. Additional digital collections from HSC can be found on their web page.

Statutes and Codes

U.S. Statutes

UK Statutes

British statutes are cited by regnal year and chapter. Regnal year refers to the year of a monarch's reign. 

For example, 2 Hen. 5, c. 7 refers to the 7th act passed in the 2nd year of the reign of King Henry V which, according to the regnal year chart, was 1414.

Deciphering Legal Abbreviations

Combined Sources for Early Statutes and Codes

Several historical databases include statutes and codes:

Constitutional History

In addition to the databases listed under Statutes and Codes, the following sources can be useful for state and federal constitutional history.

Finding & Using Archival Sources

Primary Sources at Harvard

Finding Primary Source Material in Harvard's Archives and Libraries

Primary sources available at Harvard include both published source material, such as correspondence and diaries,  and archival materials.

Harvard's special collection libraries and archival repositories are a great source of unique and rare books, historical manuscripts, documents, photographs, maps, artifacts, and numeric data.

Start in HOLLIS

Start in HOLLIS

The HOLLIS Catalog contains the records of published sources and of many of the manuscript and document collections located in Harvard's libraries and archives.

Note: Not everything is included in HOLLIS, so in addition to searching HOLLIS, we recommend that you contact the individual repositories for additional holdings information.

HOLLIS Advanced Search Strategies:

Use both Author and Subject searches to find the papers of an individual.

Search by Author or using Author Keywords to find annual reports, proceedings, minutes, etc. produced by an organization.

Add the term "sources" to a subject word search.

Limit by Resource Type such as Archives/Manuscripts

HOLLIS for Archival Discovery

 How can you locate specific documents within an archival collection?

Most manuscript and archival collections have a finding aid that provides detailed information about the collection.

Use HOLLIS for Archival Discovery to locate finding aids which describe the contents of faculty papers and other manuscript collections at Harvard.

How Are HOLLIS & HOLLIS for Archival Discovery Different?

  • HOLLIS gives you brief catalog records for books, journals and other library materials, including summary records of manuscript collections.
  • HOLLIS for Archival Discovery gives you detailed finding aids that describe entire manuscript collections. 

Compare the HOLLIS record and the finding aid for the Law Library's collection of Joseph Story's papers:

Planning your archival visit

If you are planning a visit to an archive or special collection, make sure to contact them directly before visiting. Many items are stored off site or need special arrangements for use, so give as much lead time as possible.

Visiting Historical & Special Collections at HLSL

To schedule a research visit in the Root Room, create a HOLLIS Special Request account which will allow you to place requests to view HSC's material from within HOLLIS.

Next, fill out an appointment request form at least 1 business day in advance and tell us when you would like to visit. 

Note that two days advance notice are required for visual materials and modern manuscripts (e.g. faculty papers) as they are stored offsite. 

Other Archives and Manuscript Collections

Archives & Special Collections at Harvard

Finding Archives & Special Collections Outside of Harvard

Blogs and Web Resources

Getting Help

Contact Us!

  Ask Us! Submit a question or search our knowledge base.

 Call Reference & Research Services, 617-495-4516

 Text Ask a Librarian, 617-702-2728

 Email research@law.harvard.edu

 Contact Historical & Special Collections at specialc@law.harvard.edu

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