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Isle nonprofit digitizes Iowa’s past

DES MOINES, Iowa » Thanks to work by state employees and a nonprofit group, more than 450,000 state documents dating back to Iowa’s early history are now online and available to anyone with computer access.

Since 2010, workers at the state’s libraries have been shipping hard copies of every Iowa bill, act and territorial agreement they can find to the Law Library Microform Consortium in Kaneohe. The documents date back to 1838, eight years before Iowa became a state.

Employees at the Law Library Microform Consortium have spent hundreds of hours scanning the documents and then posting data on a searchable online database.

"Essentially, we’ll have one of the most complete freely accessible collections of historical state legal materials in the country," said Cory Quist, a law librarian at the State Library of Iowa.

The Law Library Microform Consortium is a 37-year-old nonprofit with a mission of preserving and digitizing legal documents. About 500 libraries worldwide subscribe to the consortium, which did most of the work for Iowa free of charge.

The group began working on the Iowa project in 2008 after being approached by Glenn Dickinson, head of Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency. The consortium also is working with Maine and hopes the effort will spread to other states.

Dickinson said state employees have been scanning bills since the 1980s, but new technology has made the procedure much easier. That means more material can be put online and formatted in a way so people can easily search the documents.

"Once we put it in electronic format it really changes its availability and scope," he said. "Any kind of researcher who is interested in finding out the origin of a piece of legislation now has the tool to do it."

Staff in Iowa and Hawaii have scanned and shared almost 460,000 documents from 583 volumes of Iowa legislative history. That amounts to about 95 percent of the desired archive, which includes all Iowa Codes, Senate and House daily journals that list day-to-day action and votes in the chambers, drafts of bills that never became law and the Iowa attorney general’s annual reports and legal opinions.

Quist said companies like LexisNexis provide such online access for a fee, but they cannot digitize documents back to the 1830s.

"It can’t be bought, not in whole," Quist said.

University law libraries and law firms pay annual member fees to the consortium to access its services, but Executive Director Kathleen Richman said the consortium is not trying to make money through its service to state governments.

Richman estimated Iowa saved $108,000 using the consortium’s services. Even the roughly $300 the state spent in shipping costs was repaid when the consortium paid the postage to return rare documents to the state.

After being scanned, most documents are sent to an underground storage facility in Hutchinson, Kan.

Quist said having the documents online benefits everyone from students doing research to FBI investigators looking back at old state laws.

"The FBI has called (the state law library) because someone got in trouble in the 1970s and they wanted to know if it was a felony or misdemeanor back then; that would change how they are sentenced," Quist said.

Scott Sundstrom, an attorney who has worked as a lobbyist for nine sessions, said lobbyists have begun to depend on the online archives.

"You don’t have time necessarily to go grab a code book, look it up, think about it and go talk with (a legislator) about it," he said. "You have to do it right on the fly."

Sundstrom said he does most of his legislative research online now and having the archived information handy has even helped him argue a case before the state Supreme Court.

"We were looking at the legislative history for when the statute was enacted. … That can be very important for understanding legislative intent," he said. "A bill starts out one way and ends up a different way, so it’s very helpful to go back into the archives online (to see that)," he said.

Bills that were introduced but not approved also are now online.

Quist said the digital archiving project will change how people think of their library.

"This is really taking the library to the people as opposed to taking people to the library," he said.


On the Net:

» The Iowa Legislature Archives: www.legis.iowa.gov/Archives/onShelves.aspx

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