Government Law Librarianship
Alexander B. Burnett and Jessica Lundgren
Legislative librarians serve the information needs of state legislators and legislative staff and specialize in researching and collecting the documents produced by the legislative process. Many legislative librarians also provide research to government agencies, attorneys, and the general public. The practice of legislative librarianship – facilities, resources, staff, organization, and mission – varies broadly from state to state; however, legislative librarians share the obligation of being nonpartisan employees of their institutions. This chapter will discuss the different types of legislative library services in the United States, the legislative environment in which these librarians work, and the tools and materials they work with.
- Legislative librarians are law librarians that specialize in legislative and government research
- Legislative librarians serve in diverse work environments
- The ability of legislative librarians to participate in political activities is limited
Overview of the Profession
Thirty-four states have libraries or library services that are operated by the legislative branch. All but three of these libraries are staffed by at least one librarian or equivalent staff. Louisiana and Pennsylvania have two legislative libraries. Other states provide library services to legislators and legislative staff through the state library or state law library, which are organized under executive branch agencies. California and Rhode Island have library services in both the legislative and executive branches that serve the legislature. State libraries in Massachusetts, Florida, Kansas, Rhode Island, California, and Iowa are located or have branches in their state capitols.
There is no typical legislative library. About two-thirds of legislative libraries serve the public. Some legislative libraries have large facilities and collections, and some occupy small, office-like spaces. Staff size ranges from twenty-five at the Texas Legislative Reference Library to one library staffer at the Tennessee Legislative Library. The size of the reference staff at most dedicated legislative libraries is between two and five people.
The most specialized professional organization representing legislative librarians is the Legislative Research Librarians Professional Staff Association (LRL), one of nine staff associations of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). LRL provides a forum for this small community through a listserv, online newsletter, meetings and conferences, and webinars. The LRL listserv is an important research tool for some legislative libraries as patrons often request multistate surveys of laws and policies on a particular topic. Each issue of the association’s newsletter asks a “Library Question” inviting members to share and compare library policies and practices.
There are several unique aspects of working for a state legislature that affect the daily work of legislative librarians. Legislative librarians share the challenges and stresses felt by other types of law librarians, yet face demands found only in an environment where elected representatives shape the laws of that jurisdiction. While this potential to profoundly shape the lives of entire populations of people can result in a pressurized environment, this rewarding work can help to reinforce the fundamental mission of libraries to provide access to information.
Legislatures hold hearings, meetings, and other types of activity at any time of year, but typically legislation is considered only by the full legislature when they are in session. In order to help legislators know when they will have to travel to their respective capital, as well as ensuring access by the public and lobbyists, legislatures have schedules outlined in their state statutes, constitution, or in their rules of procedure. Some legislatures are considered full-time, where they can be in session throughout the year while taking periodic breaks. These are often referred to as professional legislatures since the full-time nature of legislative work makes it difficult for legislators to have normal careers outside of their public service. Other legislatures are part-time and are in session at certain times of the year. These bodies are referred to as citizen legislatures, where it is possible for someone to have a normal career as well as serve in the legislature. Even with certain legislative schedules outlined in law, legislatures can go into session at any time as crises arise or major political fights take shape. When major state, regional, national, or even international events take shape, legislatures might meet to pass laws to divert money to address an issue or amend laws to help prepare for or respond to a crisis. From natural disasters to economic disasters, it is a safe bet that legislatures are responding and legislative libraries are along for the ride.
For legislative libraries, when their respective legislature is adhering to their normal schedule, there might be a predictable flow of reference work. This period of increased reference activity includes the time immediately following an election and around any deadlines for bill submissions when legislators often seek research information to help them form ideas for their bills and draft them. Those ideas sometimes come on the campaign trail as constituents offer suggestions or frustrations. Turning these raw ideas into legislation can involve the legislator and the legislature’s bill drafting office, with law librarians playing an important support role. This support might include research on similar bills in other states or bills that have been introduced previously. Once a bill is drafted, legislators often need help finding information to support their position and to prepare themselves for opposition to their bill.
As legislation winds through the legislative process, opinions become more firmly established, and the reference workload might be reduced. While the overall reference load might reduce, time-sensitive requests for information on legislative procedure and information for impending floor speeches might increase, adding stress to librarians who have to drop other requests or projects to work on these high-priority requests. For full time legislatures, these peaks and valleys of reference requests might not be as pronounced as with part-time legislatures, but they are still present.
Whenever the legislature decides to work, it is incumbent on law libraries to provide highly responsive services to legislators and staff. This might involve late nights at certain times of the year as legislatures race to finish business before legal deadlines, such as approving a budget before a new fiscal year. In these times, legislative librarians, along with other staff in the legislature, can expect periods of intense, time-sensitive work coupled with long hours. This high-intensity work can be the most rewarding when the results of research are heard in floor speeches or in the news. Camaraderie among library staff and other staff within the legislature might also grow during these times. Such periods are temporary and are usually followed by a dramatic slowdown where librarians are able to focus more on long-term projects that are set aside when reference loads are heaviest. These projects might involve large-scale digitization of legislative materials, updating the library website, producing or updating finding aids or indices, preparing orientation materials for the group of incoming legislators, etc.
The time between legislative sessions, sometimes called the interim, presents its own set of challenges and opportunities. Interims present a dramatic change of pace in the legislative setting, where the pace of reference slows down significantly. At times, this is visible as soon as the legislature adjourns. Being able to focus on other work and projects gives legislative librarians a sense of progress compared to reference work, which can often feel like just barely being able to keep pace.
For legislative employees in general, there might be restrictions on employees taking time off during legislative sessions in order to make sure that legislative libraries are fully staffed at the busiest times of the year. The expectation of being present during sessions is usually explicitly stated during the hiring process and might be included in an employment or union contract. The expectation can be accompanied by an approval process whereby the librarian has to request approval by their manager, library director, or even a person higher up in the legislature’s management. These restrictions are typically removed during the interim. As such, the staff of a library might rush to take their vacation time at once. Ideally, there is a process in place using seniority or another method to allow employees to block off times to take vacation. Levels of minimum staffing need to be established to make sure that patron needs will not be neglected while staff are on vacation. Even during the interim, legislators will require research to help with their campaigns, plan future legislation, or answer constituent questions.
Legislators are often the ultimate decision makers relating to the administration of their legislature. Since legislators can be caught in shifting political winds, it can be difficult to maintain consistent funding when those winds shift. Coupled with the inability of nonpartisan staff to publicly lobby for funding their own offices, this can be an area of stress for legislative librarians. Further, as with other government employees, legislative law librarians might face pay freezes or cuts due to political reasons and/or budget shortfalls.
While these funding issues can be stressful due to uncontrollable factors, there is plenty that legislative librarians can control. In contrast to other government employees, legislative librarians often have the opportunity to work directly with legislators and even the administration of the governor of their state. This ability to interact face-to-face with the people that hold the purse strings is an opportunity to prove the worth of the legislative library. Especially during times when there might be negative public sentiment towards government employees, providing the best possible service and going above and beyond for legislators and others involved in policy decisions can prove that legislative librarians in particular are worth the investment. Similarly, for legislative librarians serving the public, the best way to prove worth is to exceed the library patron’s expectations. Regardless of who is asking a reference question, legislative librarians can assume that anyone they serve will talk about their experiences with other people. Word of mouth can be powerful in the legislative setting, where veteran legislators may advise newly elected legislators about various legislative services.
Nonpartisanship and limits on expression
The legislative environment has always been pressurized. Legislators often try to gain every ounce of advantage in their efforts, which can put legislative staff between a rock and a hard place. As a way to shield these employees from the changing political winds, maintain continuity, and ensure employees are serving the institution of the legislature as a whole, rather than the elected officials that make up the legislature, most legislative librarians are considered nonpartisan staff.
Nonpartisanship might be a phrase that is tossed around in the media or by nonprofit organizations who, in fact, might have biases to a particular party or cause. In the context of legislative employees, nonpartisanship is taken seriously and is a foundational aspect of being a legislative librarian. In addition to protecting legislative employees from changing political winds where partisan staff might turn over upon change of party power or leadership within a party, adherence to nonpartisanship ensures that the work of legislative librarians is focused on helping people make informed decisions. Rather than doing research to support one side of an issue, law librarians must research a topic as a whole. Often legislative patrons ask for information to back up their arguments. Nonpartisanship allows legislative librarians, with a good reference interview, to convey to the patron that the research will include reliable information about the issue generally, regardless of what side it might support. For example, if a patron requests past bills that attempted to increase a certain tax, it might be important for the legislative librarian to include attempts to lower the same tax. If there have been three recent attempts to increase the tax, but ten attempts to lower it, then it is important to provide all of that information so that the patron gets the full picture of the issue. This is not because of the disparity in the number of requests, but because understanding the reasons for and against each piece of legislation might be vital to understanding the issue in general.
In direct reference interactions, legislators might seek sympathy for their issue. They might form a statement of their side of an issue followed by a question, or they might give the legislative librarian “a look” seeking agreement. As with patrons that have not completely formulated their questions, it is important for legislative librarians to focus on turning the patron’s statement into a question that can be researched within the resources of the library. It is likely best to ignore any attempt to engage in a discussion of the merits of the patron’s stance on an issue and focus on what the librarian can provide to the patron. When passive attempts to ignore or avoid discussion of political issues with a patron fail, legislative librarians are equally as adept at the more direct methods of avoiding certain types of conversation with people. Being blunt can be a bit jarring to a patron, but sometimes it is necessary to help them understand the nonpartisan legislative librarian’s job.
Outside of work, nonpartisan legislative librarians might have limits on their freedom of speech. While voting is encouraged and it is likely acceptable to be a member of a political party, being nonpartisan might mean avoiding signing petitions, giving financial support to politicians or political organizations, speaking publicly about political issues including posting on social media, running for certain public offices, and even such things as political bumper stickers or yard signs. The boundaries about what is acceptable behavior can be blurry, and when in doubt, it is important to consult relevant policies or speak with managers. In the personal lives of legislative librarians, it might be acceptable to discuss political opinions with trusted friends and family, but treading carefully is advised when around new acquaintances. Not being able to be outspoken on issues that legislative librarians believe is a sacrifice, but it is an essential one that is made for the benefit of being able to serve as a pillar of democracy.
As mentioned above, the most important aspect of legislative law librarianship is service to the legislature by way of reference work. Requests coming from legislators and legislative staff are the primary reason that legislative libraries exist and often take priority over requests from other types of patrons. For legislative libraries that serve the public, this is not to say that legislative libraries do not value requests from external patrons, but rather requests from legislative patrons will likely be answered first. Legislative librarians are ready to go above and beyond to help the legislature make informed decisions in the most efficient way possible. There might be lengths that legislative libraries are willing to go for legislators or legislative staff, but, consistent with the library’s mission, which may not be offered to public patrons.
In addition to prioritizing legislative reference requests, there might be shifts in employee work in times of need in order to be able to answer incoming requests in the most timely and thorough manner possible. Long-term projects, such as digitization of legislative resources, are important to the mission of legislative libraries but are secondary, and essentially only an enhancement of the library’s reference services. Disruptions to these types of projects are inevitable as the library’s reference service is often viewed as the library’s primary mission.
Varieties of patrons
For legislative libraries that also serve the public, the nature of reference work can shift during the interim. Instead of researching legislative histories, past legislation, and laws in other states, legislative librarians might find themselves assisting public patrons by finding relevant statutes, legal forms, and case law. At times, public patrons may be a central part of reference work in the interim.
Public patrons request historical research, information to help with court cases in which they are representing themselves, or they might want general information about the law or legislative process. Typically, these patrons come into a reference interaction with different expectations and possibly less familiarity with legislative and legal research than legislators or staff. Nevertheless, this is a way for legislative libraries to serve directly people that would not otherwise be able to obtain that information.
In addition to legislative and public patrons, legislative libraries might also serve lawyers, judges, lobbyists, journalists, executive administrations, state agencies, federal agencies, and officials from other states. Each of these groups comes with their own challenges, and while they may have expertise in legal or policy research, they might not be familiar with legislative research or the intricacies of the particular legislature. There might be a level of embarrassment at not being familiar with the legislative process or they might not have conducted legislative history research in a long time. It is important for legislative librarians to have a soft touch to welcome people into legislative research so that they will return for future needs.
Relationships with legislators, administrators, and state agencies
Librarians of all types develop relationships with patrons from repeated interactions. Many legislators, along with state employees from all branches of government, can remain in public service for many years and use the library services regularly. These connections are important in bridging the information gap between the legislature and agencies in other branches of government as well as promoting library services.
While some legislators will remain in elected office for many years, there is likely a significant amount of turnover after each election. In order to familiarize new legislators with the services of the legislative library, legislative libraries might conduct tours and participate in orientation or information sessions for new legislators. Even with these more formal ways to introduce legislative library services to new legislators, existing legislators and legislative staff that have had positive experiences will point newcomers to the library. In this way, as important as it is for any library to promote their services, it is often word of mouth that informs people of where to get the information they need.
The same can be said for state agencies where there might be a consistent stream of new employees or interns, along with people who have been in their jobs for decades. Depending on the mission of the library, reaching out to regular patrons from the executive and judicial branches to provide an introduction to library services for new employees or interns can be fruitful. Formal training sessions for new and tenured employees in other branches of government can do more than introduce people to library services by going more in depth into how to carry out legislative research. Even with the more in-depth trainings, attendees will likely still need further help when they need to conduct reference. Their familiarity with the materials and ideas of legislative research will give them confidence when using the legislative library.
Legislative librarians are law librarians that specialize in legislative and government research, in particular information that documents and informs the promulgation of written law, guides the legislative process, and provides a historical perspective of the legislature. This section focuses on areas of research that distinguish legislative librarianship from other types of law librarianship.
Legislative history research
Legislative librarians perform extensive legislative history research on a regular basis. A legislative history is the record of the actions and documents produced by the lawmaking process. Legislative history research is used by attorneys and judges to interpret statutes when the application of a law is in dispute, by state agencies in writing rules and regulations, by legislators in drafting new legislation, or by any researcher who wants background information about the development of a certain area of law.
Statutes can be traced back months, years, decades, or centuries. The materials that comprise a legislative history vary from state to state and have changed significantly over time. They generally include versions of a bill as it goes through the legislature, journals or debate from both chambers of the legislature, legislative committee proceedings, and legislative and government agency reports. Legislative librarians work fluently with contemporary and historical documents and legal citations as well as superseded and archived versions of their state’s statutes.
Legislative procedure research
The procedures by which state legislatures consider legislation is governed by a combination of constitutional provisions, statutes, legislative chamber rules, parliamentary authorities, and local tradition. Sometimes, these procedures are disputed, wherein case law or an attorney general’s opinion might clarify how a particular procedure is applied. Legislative librarians answer questions about which laws and rules govern certain legislative procedures and situations. They are also asked to find precedent for legislative procedures.
- “Who has the authority to call a special session of the legislature? How must this be done?”
- “What constitutes final adjournment of the legislature?”
- “Has the governor ever failed to return a bill that was recalled by the legislature?”
- “Can you find several instances where a Senator moved to reconsider an action and then voted against the motion to consider?”
In addition to primary and secondary law resources, legislative librarians consult their legislature’s House (or Assembly), Senate, or joint chamber rules. These rules are determined by the legislature itself. They are amended, if necessary, and adopted at each session. Legislative librarians also use published manuals, such as Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order, which have been recognized by their state legislature as a parliamentary authority. To answer questions related to procedural precedent, legislative librarians research current and archived chamber journals or other records of legislative action.
Other categories of research common to legislative librarians
Legislators and legislative staff often ask about the laws in other states as well as bills that have been proposed in their own legislature in the past.
- “How do other states regulate powdered alcohol?”
- “Have any states recently proposed or passed legislation to address student debt?”
- “Send me legislation from the past ten years that proposed professional license requirements for home inspectors.”
- “I’m looking for a bill that was proposed in the last couple of sessions related to the legalization of psilocybin mushrooms.”
Legislative libraries can be a source of information for current and past legislator biographical information. Patrons might ask about a former legislator’s years of service, including committee assignments, party affiliation, and sponsored or co-sponsored bills. Legislative librarians also field questions about historical events and circumstances related to the legislature.
- “Who was the first woman to serve on the Appropriations Committee?”
- “What was the longest legislative session since 1973?”
- “Which governor has vetoed the most bills?”
- “Has the legislature ever met someplace other than the State House?”
CONCEPT IN ACTION: DAY IN THE LIFE
It’s the last scheduled week of the legislative session. The halls of the State House are bustling with legislators, staff, lobbyists, protesters, and reporters. Katrina, a legislative reference librarian, doesn’t know when she’ll be going home tonight, but it will probably be late. The Legislature is still hashing out details of the annual budget, a lengthy process involving partisan negotiation, the drafting of numerous amendments, and extensive floor debate. Thankfully, Katrina reflects, there is no indication that there will be a government shutdown like there was two years ago when legislators couldn’t agree on a budget. When the Legislature is in session, Katrina is very busy. This afternoon, she’s working on several urgent reference questions from a variety of patrons. Her top priority is a question from a State Senator about the rules governing the authority to convene a special session. Katrina is looking forward to the interim, i.e. when the Legislature is not in session, when she can catch up on a digitization project and take a vacation. Time off is hard to come by during the legislative session.
Having delivered the results to her patrons, it’s time for a break. Katrina has lunch and checks Facebook. Many of her friends’ posts are about politicians or controversial issues. Though she respects their decision to do so, Katrina doesn’t post these types of things or react to them for the same reason she doesn’t put candidate signs on her lawn or contribute to state political campaigns: She is a nonpartisan employee of the Legislature and is restricted by the Legislature’s personnel policies from certain political activities.
Legislative Library Collection
Whether or not a legislative library serves the public will largely dictate the collection development of legislative libraries. For these legislative libraries, it might be necessary to have legal treatises and other legal books for lawyers and people representing themselves in court. Collection development of treatises will generally follow the practices used by other law libraries.
The core of any legislative library naturally consists of materials produced by the legislature. This might include bills, published and recorded proceedings of the House (or Assembly), Senate, and legislative committees, legislative study reports, newspapers, and state documents related to the work of the legislature. The legislative library might be the only repository in the state for these types of materials. Even if a separate archive, library, or other department maintains these items, the legislative library is likely the only place where patrons can find expert help navigating the complicated nature of legislative resources. While the collection of the legislative library might be searchable in an online catalog, the unique nature of the materials make legislative librarians indispensable in helping patrons carry out thorough research.
In order to increase access to legislative materials, which have traditionally been available only within the physical library, some legislative libraries have digitized historical materials and made them available online for faster and easier access by librarians and patrons. Nevertheless, legislative librarians are important to connecting patrons with the information they seek.
Additionally, legislative librarians might have general reference resources similar to other law libraries as well as subscriptions to legal research platforms. Depending on the mission and budget of the library, legislative libraries might subscribe to services such as Lexis Advance, Westlaw, Bloomberg Law, and HeinOnline.
For legislative libraries of all sizes and missions, when the library lacks access to something that a patron is looking for, there is a community of law librarians that can help retrieve materials through email listservs, online message boards, and direct communication with other libraries. Legislative libraries also might be a part of a library consortium and might use interlibrary loan to supplement their collection.
As with any library, the collection should fit the library’s mission. In the legislative library setting, the focus will be on the unique materials produced and used by the legislature. Facilitating access to these materials is an invaluable service to the legislature and the citizenry as a whole.
Legislative libraries often have a substantial historical collection. Biographical materials about individual legislators, information about renovations to physical spaces, and other materials that do not necessarily relate to the legislative process might be helpful to document the history of the institution of the legislature. The legislative library might be the only resource for the type of biographical material to help patrons understand the people behind legislation and for families seeking information about a deceased relative’s service. Knowing what bills someone sponsored, the committees that they served on, how they voted on certain bills and even their recorded comments may be the only way that people can get a picture of a former legislators’ politics and what they contributed to their legislature and state.
Legislative libraries also might collect government agency reports and documents, which can play an important role in the legislative process and can be a valuable part of legislative history research. There might be issues discussed in state agency reports that act as catalysts for legislation. Conversely, state agency reports might discuss potential or actual consequences of proposed or enacted bills. These unique perspectives and in-depth discussions of legislation might be a way to understand motivations behind a bill.
Superseded statutes and historical versions of statutes
In tracing current law to its origins, it is important to be able to consult superseded versions of statutes. Historical versions of statutes might act as stepping stones to get back to when a law was originally enacted or when specific language changed. Superseded statutes also can be useful in seeing what a statute looked like at a particular point in time. This snapshot can be useful to see what a particular criminal statute looked like at the time a crime was committed. Likewise, it can be much easier to understand what a statute looked like at a particular point in time rather than trying to piece together various session laws, which might print only a specific portion of a statute that is being amended.
Finally, historical statutes can be a quick and easy way for someone to view a large swath law from a certain period in one place. This can provide context for understanding the laws at a particular time or useful as a jumping-off point in other types of legal research.
- Aycock, Anthony. “What It’s Like to Be a State Legislative Librarian.” Information Today, April 2020.
- Gioia, Michael. “The Accidental Librarian: How A Quirky Former Football Coach Upended the Staid World of Libraries and Changed the Role of Legislative Research Forever.” State Legislatures, January 2016.
- Manz, William H. Guide to State Legislation, Legislative History, and Administrative Materials. AALL Publications Series. Buffalo, New York: William S. Hein & Company, Inc., 2008.
- McClure, Megan. “3 Things Legislative Research Librarians Want You to Know.” State Legislatures, April 2017.
- Rothstein, Samuel. “The Origins of Legislative Reference Services in the United States.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 15, no. 3 (August 1990): 401-411.