A couple weeks ago I mentioned that “the more I know… the more I know I don’t know.” Apparently, I could use that quote on just about anything I post on this blog. Over the weekend I was catching up on some reading when I found a reference to something called the Public Library of Law (PLoL), powered by Fastcase. After a few emails back and forth between myself and Fastcase’s Ed Walters, I found out that this free resource has been out since the first quarter of 2008. I’m not sure how I’ve missed it for so long, but it just proves the first sentence above!

Ed Walters gave me a brief explanation of why Fastcase launched this service:

We launched PLoL in February 2008 as a resource for non-lawyer researchers.  We saw lots of journalists, business owners, students, and pro se litigants signing up for free trials of Fastcase, and thought there should be a simple, free resource for them that fit their needs.
The idea was to empower people to educate themselves as best they could — not in place of a lawyer, but more likely before or in conjunction with professional legal help.
We wanted to build a library for law like WebMD was for medicine.
Nobody uses WebMD instead of going to a doctor, but it can empower people to take better care of themselves in conjunction with their doctor.
At its launch, it was the biggest free law library on the Web (a claim we need to update with the launch of the terrific material on Google Scholar).

After signing up for a free account and playing around with PLoL for a while, I found it to be pretty straight-forward, and I liked the format of both the search results, and the layout of the text of the case, especially when compared to Google Scholar. (I still don’t like how you cannot do a specific citation search on Google Scholar, but I might be ‘unique’ in using that feature to pull cases.)

The Public Library of Law hosts the cases through the Fastcase database, but the statutes, regulatory and other materials pass you through to the state or federal websites which host those individual materials. According to the site, here is a list of what you can find on PLoL:

  • Cases from the U.S. Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals [hosted on PLoL]
  • Cases from all 50 states back to 1997 [hosted on PLoL]
  • Federal statutory law and codes from all 50 states [via State or Federal websites]
  • Regulations, court rules, constitutions, and more! [via State or Federal websites]

PLoL is also a way to promote the main product in the stable and that’s Fastcase. When you click on links to material that is outside of this range, you get a pop-up message pointing you to the Fastcase “pay service”.

Also, when you do a search on the database, it will bring you back a message of how many results are available on PLoL, and an additional message that lets you know that there are a lot more results available if you move up to the full Fastcase subscription.

One of the features that I saw on PLoL that I think would be very valuable is an RSS feed of new decisions for each state, federal district, or US Supreme Court. Many of us would like to know when new decisions are handed down, and putting that in my RSS reader is a giant plus in my book.

The Public Library of Law isn’t something that you’d want to hang your legal research hat on, but for a freebie product, it isn’t half-bad. Like Ed told me, PLoL isn’t really set up for lawyers or power-user legal researcher types… but rather for non-lawyers to get a streamlined view of cases and access to other primary legal resources. For someone that may not have access to research tools like Fastcase or Casemaker through their bar associations, and Google Scholar doesn’t really do the trick, then having a product like PLoL out there can be a useful legal resource.

Post Links:
Public Library of Law (PLoL)
RSS Feed for PLoL
Google Scholar

[Note: Jason Wilson from rethinc.k talked with me last night about ‘delinkification’ (the placing of links at the bottom of a blog post rather than linking directly within the post itself. I told him I would try it here and see what the overall reaction is to this format.]
Post Links to the Post Script:
Jason Wilson’s rethinc.k
Nicholas Carr’s Experiment in Delinkification