The Bluebook: A Plot Summary
I here entreat those who have any tincture of this absurd vice, that they will not presume to come in my sight.
This post closes a chapter in the tale of legal style support in Multilingual Zotero, so that the next can begin. The story began a little over five years ago, with a purpose that was quite simple, if crazily ambitious: to build a platform with automated citation support to serve researchers in any field, from any jurisdiction, handling resources in any language. Zotero and the Citation Style Language (CSL) provided a solid keel on which to build, but there was a lot of building to be done: no one had ever launched a multilingual reference manager, or explored the full complexities of legal referencing in a citation formatter. I would have to make my own mistakes, and if the project were not to have an unhappy ending, to learn from them.
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As Professor Lessig writes in his Foreword to “Citations, Out of the Box“, we ingest this kind of verbal razor-wire every day. A person ordinarily clicks and moves on; but when I came upon this passage for the first time, that person was not me. I was inclined to read with respect and deference, for two reasons that seemed compelling at the time.
First, for the previous two years, I had been working intensively with a highly motivated team to design and implement revisions to the CSL language. Specification discussions are a special flavour of discourse, with a very low tolerance for ambiguity and contradiction. A specification is intended to be a full and final expression of agreed requirements, and as such it must be clear what each statement it contains does and does not mean. Sustained exposure to that discipline had, I suppose, altered my reading instincts for the worse.
Second, I was in the process of circulating a book proposal, for the work that eventually became “Citations, Out of the Box”. Reference manager technology is unfamiliar ground for most lawyers, and a book-length publication would be an opportunity to lay out the basics to this new audience. It would be a major step for the project, and I was keen to avoid surprises for potential publishers.
While waiting for a response, I received an offer of contract from a major U.S. legal publisher. This was a cause of great celebration in our household, until the following email arrived, from the Bluebook Chair at the Harvard Law Review:
Thank you for your inquiry. I apologize it has taken so long to reply to your message, but this mailbox is not checked as regularly (especially during the summer) as you expect.
Well, I had asked, hadn’t I.
It made no sense to me that the copyright associated with a volume standing on the library shelf could be extended so dramatically by the happenstance of signing up to read the same text online. Assuming that there had been a local misunderstanding, I pointed out this contradiction, in a followup note sent by registered mail to the four law reviews that operate the Bluebook. In due course, I received a response from my original correspondent:
So now the annoyance was mutual.
When I wrote to Professor Lessig with news of this conundrum, he was equally puzzled, and kindly agreed to test the waters in a direct conversation with the editors. That did not go well: in addition to reconfirming that I was not welcome to subscribe to the online version, the editors apparently doubted whether readers of any copy of the Bluebook were free to cast its rules in software. I will confess that, although I am the author of a program that is used daily, to automate hundreds of citation styles, for an audience numbering in the millions, without anyone’s prior written consent, this latter possibility had never occurred to me.
As appropriate under the terms of the book contract awaiting signature on my desk, I shared this chain of correspondence with the publishers. Their response was cautious. Thinking that the ALWD Manual might serve as an alternative, I appealed to its editors, only to be informed that the Bluebook’s position sounded pretty attractive to them as well. Other possible adjustments were explored, but we were unable to find a satisfactory way of insulating the project from destruction (at least in the unhappy event that it proved successful). The deal fell through.
And so, with publishers leery of ominous signals emanating from Gannett House, the world’s first book on legal and multilingual reference management was relegated to DIY status. I dusted off my Python and LaTeX skills. I built my own typesetting platform. I learned to work with the
node.js programming environment. I built a comprehensive style testing framework, and integrated it with the typesetter. I got very little sleep, but eventually, with the support and encouragement of a large and diverse circle of friends, I completed the book.
Some time after, Carl Malamud for Public.Resource.Org approached the Harvard Law Faculty, and through it the Harvard Law Review Association, concerning the stifling impact that the Bluebook’s restrictive stance was having on innovation. The approach was supplemented by a bundle of materials, including a tiny fragment of the Bluebook itself, a copy of the MLZ American Law Style, the MLZ abbreviation mapping files (reflecting various Bluebook tables), as well as items from other sources. Through the law offices of Ropes & Gray, the Association expressed a strong concern over the posting of the Bluebook text. Concerning the portions of MLZ code (which had been explicitly referenced to this website), counsel for the Association indicated that:
[T]he law reviews reserve their rights with respect to these particular files as they consider the issues posed by all such works.
And there the correspondence ends.
Taking stock today, five years since the commencement of
The long period of constipated fretting over the series of Bluebook pronouncements described here has led me to conclude that it resembles nothing so much as that famous Tale of a Tub, a finely constructed work of literature flung out “by way of amusement” for persons of a serious disposition, but also known on good authority to have been “hollow, and dry, and empty, and noisy, and wooden, and given to rotation.” While this thoroughly gripping semantic adventure has had its moments, sanity requires that we return at long last to the foundations of the language, as it is normally used for communication between members of our species.
The software module once referred to as “the MLZ American Law Style” will now be known as “the MLZ Bluebook Style”; it will be described as “an unauthorized implementation of ‘The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation’” because that is what it is; and it will be adapted to cover the 20th edition of that citation manual, when said citation manual eventually reaches the bookshelves.