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New Web access to laws provides a window to history

Published (5/16/2008)
By Session Weekly Staff
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Did you know that a law forbidding installation of a television screen in a motor vehicle “at any point forward of the driver’s seat” was passed as early as 1949?

Our state laws are a window to history. And now laws enacted back to the territorial days of 1849 can be accessed online, thanks to a recently completed project by the Minnesota Office of the Revisor of Statutes.

“I am delighted that technological advances and broad legislative support made it possible for the Revisor’s office to improve public access to the historical session laws in this sesquicentennial year,” said Michele Timmons, revisor of statutes.

Sometimes called “session laws” or “Laws of Minnesota,” these are important because they provide the basis for state statutes and may play a critical role in the interpretation of a statute’s meaning. Some session laws are never codified because their effect is limited in time (such as budget bills) or scope (such as special laws which apply just to one county or city), Timmons said.

The laws can be found at Prior to the project, laws passed before 1994 were only in print, and few libraries had a complete set.

An online search function makes it easy to find laws on interesting topics. For instance, searching “grasshoppers” brings up many laws from the 1800s that helped citizens harmed by plagues of those insects.

Timmons said the process of adding Web access to the older laws was complex. The laws from 1983 to 1993 were in a customized format on an outdated mainframe computer. As part of a larger project to develop a more modern bill-drafting and publishing system, these laws were converted to HTML format for Web access.

Pre-1983 laws were converted from print.

“First, the original book bindings were carefully removed by staff at the University of Minnesota. The often-crumbling book pages were scanned and the results were subjected to optical character recognition technology,” Timmons said. Office programmers, along with consultants, transferred the data to the Web in over 40,000 searchable PDF documents, while university staff carefully rebound the original books for archiving.

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