Kevin Riordan: Rutgers law librarian a Web pioneer

"There are thousands of books," says law school librarian John Joergensen, "but they're squirrelled away in little libraries or very expensive databases." His project started in 1997.
"There are thousands of books," says law school librarian John Joergensen, "but they're squirrelled away in little libraries or very expensive databases." His project started in 1997. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: September 01, 2011

John Joergensen, Rutgers-Camden law school librarian, is also a lawyer, a harvester, and a shepherd.

The last two titles sound a bit agrarian, but they are essential arts in his mission: to collect, catalog, curate, and present online a digital archive of the law of the land.

Free.

"Taxpayers have already paid for this information," says Joergensen, whose pioneering New Jersey Court Web project (www.lawlibrary.rutgers.edu) has posted state appellate rulings since 1997.

The site now includes digital copies of all sorts of documents, from federal court rulings to the deliberations of state constitutional conventions.

Much of the material, often available for a fee from publishers of databases and hard-copy texts, is generated by jurists and lawmakers who are public employees.

"We pay their salaries," says Joergensen, who's been putting our legal heritage online since before anyone had heard the word Google.

He recently was named "one of the nation's most interesting and provocative leaders in the combined fields of law, scholarship, and technology" by the legal research services firm Fastcase.

"There are thousands of books, but they're squirreled away in little libraries or very expensive databases," Joergensen says. "The public has no access, practically speaking.

"Why should we have to pay third parties for access to what our tax dollars paid for in the first place?"

Good question.

"One of the criticisms has been that the market [should be] taking care of this, rather than a public institution, and that the project smacks of socialism," he says.

"But if we say ignorance of the law is no excuse, then the law should be ubiquitous, and available."

Joergensen grew up in Bergen County and lives in Mount Airy with his wife, Patricia, a math professor at Holy Family University. They're raising four kids ages 10 to 17.

The librarian in the house is 50 - meaning he was a Fordham freshman in the manual typewriter era.

"I'll confess to watching Star Trek," he says in answer to my inevitable "Were you a nerd?" question.

Joergensen earned graduate degrees in law and philosophy, practiced criminal law in Philadelphia, and had recently earned his master's in library and information science at Drexel when he got his Rutgers job in 1996.

With the support of the New Jersey Supreme Court, he launched the Web project the following year. The digital resource he has designed and built - largely by himself - has so far cost Rutgers about $50,000, and attracts one million views annually.

"You know what people are looking for? Transparency," Joergensen says. "They want to see what the government and the legislators and the judges are doing."

The user-friendly site (trust me on that) includes digitized copies of more than 800,000 state and federal court decisions, as well as 3.4 million pages of congressional documents.

Some of the material is culled from the 400,000-volume Rutgers-Camden law library, housed in the two-building complex at Fifth and Penn where Joergensen has his office.

At Rutgers, "we're out of space," he says. "We have to throw away a huge amount of material to make way for new stuff.

"We're actually slicing spines off books and feeding the pages into scanners" that make digital images, he adds.

An informal survey of site visitors has indicated that about half are lawyers, and that many of the rest own small businesses.

"People want to know about contracts, or divorce, or if it's worthwhile to hire a lawyer," Joergensen says. "They want to know what the legal lay of the land is."

Not available: legal advice. This isn't dial-a-lawyer, or a source for do-it-yourself divorce kits.

Via e-mail, "people ask [specific] legal questions, and my answer is invariably, 'Here's how you can search this topic effectively,' " Joergensen says.

Serving the public good also has what could be called a self-serving aspect; he wants to keep libraries - and librarians - alive and well.

But the main thing is to preserve and disseminate as much information as possible, in perpetuity.

"Years from now, when I'm long gone and the search engine crashes," Joergensen says, "someone will be able to run a program that will completely rebuild the collection."


Kevin Riordan:

To watch an interview with John Joergensen, go to www.philly.com/johnjoergensen


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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