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.
I'm very excited about this essay and their methods. This will appear in the inaugural issue of the American Journal of Legal History as it migrates to Oxford University Press. I'll be talking a lot more about this article and others in that issue in the spring. All of the articles in our first issue will, like this one, address some aspect of the future of legal history. Some deal with methodology; others with specific time periods, doctrinal areas, or groups under study. There's an eclectic mix and I think it'll be a great kick-off to all sorts of questions we hope our authors will explore down the road.