232 years ago today, 38 delegates came together to sign the U.S. Constitution. While there’s a lot of fanfare around the founding document, there’s not much noise about its lesser-known, handy companion, the Constitution Annotated (CONAN). Fortunately, Sens. Portman and King released a letter last week making some noise, calling for CONAN to be available online in an accessible format for everyone to us. Today it appears the Library of Congress has listened. (See their blogpost making the announcement and detailing the new website).
CONAN is a legal treatise prepared by the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service and published by the Government Publishing Office (GPO). The document is a non-partisan and comprehensive analysis of how the Supreme Court has interpreted the U.S. Constitution.
For a decade, we’ve been asking the Library of Congress and GPO to publish CONAN online in an accessible and user-friendly format. Congress shared our sentiments in 2010 when lawmakers authorized the Library to improve public access — “to update the online edition as frequently as possible, and to create new and improved functions on the CONAN site.” Lawmakers also noted “Congress and the public should find this site accessible and user friendly.”
The Library and GPO published a CONAN app online in 2013, and while that was a tentative step in the right direction, the flaws in the roll-out overwhelmed any underlying value.
For example, CONAN was published as a set of large PDFs that are difficult to navigate and cumbersome to download. On top of that, the app version of CONAN is only available for Apple devices. Even if you have the right type of device, good luck reading the document: CONAN files don’t resize to fit with your phone screen and the result is tiny text. It’s virtually impossible to navigate or read.
It looks like the Library, after encouragement from civil society and lawmakers, has fixed these problems by making the treatise available in HTML. This is a significant step in the right direction. We encourage the Library to go a step further by publishing the treatise as data, such as in the XML format in which it is prepared (or perhaps a cleaned-up version).
We welcome today’s progress.
— Written by Daniel Schuman and Amelia Strauss