Iowa's Constitution digitized for future generations

Specialized equipment used for living document

By Alison Gowans, The Gazette

DES MOINES — Published in 1857, the book that holds the original copy of the Iowa State Constitution sits under glass in the Secretary of State's office in the State Capitol Building in Des Moines.

The first page, which lays out the geographic boundaries of the state, is visible to the public. But until now, the rest of its 40 pages of script have been hidden inside its protective case.

This week, that changed thanks to a partnership between the State Library and the Iowa Secretary of State's office, which worked together to scan the document, using a specialized $23,000 piece of equipment the library recently purchased. The digitized version will be available online at http://www.statelibraryofiowa.org/services/collections/law-library/iacon.

Though the text of the constitution has long been available to read, the public can now view the original, handwritten script.

“This is the foundational document of our governance. This is probably the most important book in our state,” said State Law Librarian Cory Quist, who helped spearhead the project. “Everything grows out of this.”

He said he wants people to appreciate this is a living document still relevant today and used as the basis for numerous historic Iowa Supreme Court decisions, including the desegregation of Iowa schools almost 100 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education. Iowa's Constitution has been amended 48 times — amendments have included provisions like removing “white” and “male” from who is allowed to vote. Another amendment removed a ban against dueling by elected officials.

Interim State Librarian Barbara Corson said after the Iowa Supreme Court's 2008 decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Iowa, librarians were inundated with calls from people questioning the decision's basis in Iowa's constitution. She said many asked how they could trust the typed text was accurate. They wanted to see the primary document for themselves, but that wasn't possible.

Librarians ran into obstacles finding an appropriate facility to undertake the digitization work. The state was working with an outside firm to scan other historic documents, but Corson said that firm wasn't willing to take on liability for the constitution. Additionally, a provision in Iowa law says the document should reside, “in the heart of state government,” making its caretakers reluctant to ship the book out of state.

Just to transport the constitution across the street from the Capitol Building to the State Library on Wednesday required careful planning. Quist placed the book in a specially made archival box, and Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz carried the box across Des Moines Street, under official guard by Iowa State Patrol Sergeant J.R. Pearson.

The constitution was last moved from the Secretary of State's office in the 1980s, when it was sent to the University of Iowa for two years of restoration and conservation work. When funding for technology upgrades allowed the library to purchase the specialized scanner, which is larger and better suited to sensitive materials and books than a conventional scanner, librarians realized they would be able to complete the digitization themselves. The scanner also will be invaluable to digitize other historic documents from around the state, Corson said.

Working to find the a balance between preserving the document and providing access has paid off, Schultz said.

“It's been an honor being able to come in every day and see the constitution,” he said. “But you've had this beautiful document under glass, and no one ever sees it.”

 

• VIDEO: Watch a documentary on the Iowa Legislative Services Agency site — www.statelibrary.org/services/collectoins/law-library/iacon.

View Iowa's Constitution

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