The Constitution Outside the Courts: The Library of Congress

Many Americans, not just the courts, help shape the meaning of the Constitution in the nation’s life. This series explains the actual or potential contributions of these other individuals, groups, or institutions. Today’s Constitution-maker is the Library of Congress, America’s oldest federal cultural institution.

Marking Constitution Day this week, the Library together with the U.S. Government Printing Office released new telephone and Internet access versions of its venerable publication popularly known as “Constitution Annotated,” published and updated for a century now.   The Internet version – all 2,830 pages – can be downloaded, read and searched here.

The mobile “app” can be downloaded for free from iTunes here

theconstitutionRecently, in an exercise gym in a Washington, D.C., suburb, one of the patrons was wearing a T-shirt that read: “Proud Owner of the Bill of Rights.”  That is a common sentiment among Americans: the Constitution is their personal property, as much as the special belongings that they count as their treasures.  And everyone probably has some notion of what is in the document, and why it is important to them.  Just reading it, or deeply studying it, shapes its meaning for that person as part of the nation’s ongoing process of constitutional education.

In the digital age, the young who live by their hand-held electronic devices and the older who may still be trying to adapt to such devices could have expected that someone would put the Constitution online for instant access.  There are, indeed, many web sites where it already can be found.  But none, perhaps, can rival the new versions just released in Washington by the Library of Congress in a joint project with the Government Printing Office.

In a mobile app and in a digitized online version, “The Constitution of the United States: Analysis and Interpretation” is a constitutional library all of its own.  Beyond the full text of the Constitution and all 27 amendments to it, there are sections of history, analysis and citations to Supreme Court cases for each of the provisions.  The case discussions, done by scholars at the Library, are as up-to-date as the court’s rulings last June, and will continue to be updated three or four times each year. There is also a section on proposed constitutional amendments that never got ratified, and a section on the federal laws that the Supreme Court has struck down, completely or partially.

Because of its breadth, it can take a few minutes to download the entire document.  But once on a screen, every part of the Constitution can be reached in seconds through a search function (an icon of a pair of binoculars).  For example, a search for “Thirteenth Amendment” takes the reader swiftly to a ten-page chapter that opens with a discussion of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, discusses its history and how it has been interpreted in court rulings.

Up to now, the Library’s compendium on the Constitution has been a very bulky volume with case discussions updated only every two years, and it was issued in a new bound volume only once every ten years.   It was not something one carried around to quickly settle an argument about the Constitution.

When Americans contemplate some kind of civic situation that they think needs fixing, they often will say “there oughta be a law.”   And, much of the time, they mean that the Constitution should have something to say on the point.  Given more than two centuries of Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution’s words, there seems to be little about government that is not covered in some way.  Finding it is the challenge.

Teachers, from elementary school through advanced graduate and post-graduate schools, are some of the nation’s most active Constitution-makers, in the sense that they have helped generations of students get acquainted with their constitutional heritage.   Knowing about it, and beginning to understand it, is the starting point for making the document one’s own.

Now, the Library of Congress has taken its turn as a Constitution-maker, sharing the massive record of constitutional learning by its own experts to anyone with a mobile device or a computer – for free.

Lyle Denniston is the National Constitution Center’s adviser on constitutional literacy. He has reported on the Supreme Court for 55 years, currently covering it for SCOTUSblog, an online clearinghouse of information about the Supreme Court’s work.

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