04 September 2010

Genealogy in University Archives: Digital Legal Case Files

I have not yet "succumbed to the lure" of Facebook and Twitter. But I love the interesting tidbits of life being placed online nowadays. I can learn so much from bloggers in different fields telling of online discoveries. Although, some governmental entities are slow to put historical documents online, universities are leading the way. I suspect all of that enthusiasm and free labor from students helps.

Helen F. M. Leary and Elizabeth Shown Mills taught me why genealogists should be concerned about the law in a class at IGHR back in 2003. Benjamin B. Spratling III, Ann Carter Fleming, and Kay Haviland Freilich added to that knowledge in another IGHR course a few years later. They made me aware of Black's Law Dictionary1 and The History of American Law.2 A while back I discovered Law Librarian Blog and Legal History Blog. Both have posts of interest to historians and genealogists. All great resources for genealogists trying to learn more about the law.

The Law Librarian article Texas Tech Law Library Launches Digital Repository piqued my interest with a statement that there is "a complete collection of our publications faculty produced while at Texas Tech." So I browsed the collection. In addition to some great resources for learning about the law, the collection includes Executive Orders of Texas governors and personal papers of some professors.

Professor Daniel H. Benson was involved in an eight-year case against the City of Lubbock regarding the election system. One of the documents is a long list of exhibits and witnesses for the defense. Hand-written notes and lined-through sections on the typed documents could provide clues to the workings of a legal mind. But the best part is the deposition of one witness, maybe used during witness-prep. All of the questions and answers are there along with some directions like "you can elaborate on this."

Imagine the excitement of a genealogist in the future looking for her ancestor and finding his deposition where the first twenty-plus questions cover his background. How old are you? Where are you from? Where did you go to school? Where did you work? What have you published. Even a question similar to one that sparked a news controversy two years ago: "And do you regularly read and keep up with the journals and professional literature published by these associations and in your field of political science generally?"

Now I am hoping all of my ancestors were involved in massive law suits where the lawyer was also a university professor. University archives — when the courthouse burned or flooded — are an alternative repository for a "reasonably exhaustive search" (or compulsively unreasonable for those of us who don't know when to stop). The case number is on the digital documents so that future genealogist can also go to the courthouse and see the entire case file if the courthouse didn't burn or the files were saved from the fire or flood.

Thank you to all of the repositories making it easier for us to locate historical documents without leaving home.

Bryan A. Garner, Black's Law Dictionary, 8th ed. (St Paul, Minnesota: Thompson/West, 2004). [4th ed. recommended as best for genealogists when can find used version. Earlier editions now available on CD from Archive CD Books.] Digitized version of 1910 Black's Law Dictionary at http://www.constitution.org/dict/blacks_2nd.pdf.

Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law, 3d ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005).

© 2010, Debbie Parker Wayne, All Rights Reserved

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