Magazine article State Legislatures

Accidental Librarian: How a Quirky Former Football Coach Upended the Staid World of Libraries and Changed the Role of Legislative Research Forever

Magazine article State Legislatures

Accidental Librarian: How a Quirky Former Football Coach Upended the Staid World of Libraries and Changed the Role of Legislative Research Forever

Article excerpt

State politics is teeming with colorful characters and controversies--the stuff of history and legend. By comparison, a central institution of state governance--the legislative staff agency--seems staid. But that's only if you don't know the story.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the modern legislative staff agency simply did not exist. The New York State Library would often provide books and other research materials to legislators down the street in Albany, but there was no equivalent help in any other state. As a result, most citizen legislators tackled thorny, esoteric issues on their own, often with disastrous results.

Private individuals and groups often were able to exploit this void of effective reference services. As Samuel Rothstein concluded in one study of legislatures, "Lawmakers, mostly inexperienced and often not well-educated, had to cope with social and technical problems of growing complexity, possessing little more information than that which could be filtered through the partisan propaganda of lobbyists and special interest groups."

Not surprisingly, state legislatures sank in the eyes of the public, and scholars began to rethink the way laws were made. The situation was indeed problematic, but this reform effort would produce tremendous results.

The Football Star

Charles McCarthy stepped onto the stage nearly by accident. A former college football star turned academic, McCarthy arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1901, freshly graduated and unemployed. A bright student who had risen from poverty, McCarthy had developed an impressive network of friends, including John D. Rockefeller Jr. Through his connections at the University of Wisconsin, McCarthy obtained a job with the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, where he became a state documents librarian.

McCarthy took over a relatively new program, where he managed a small collection of documents recently separated from the library and placed in the Capitol. On paper, his tasks were merely to catalog and preserve the materials in his collection. But his ambitions soon grew far beyond that.

McCarthy dreamed of a much more active program, in which he and his small sub-library served as a direct bridge between legislatures and the information they needed. In a letter to Rockefeller in 1902, McCarthy claimed he would soon enter "a field between the theoretical work of the University and the practical work of the legislature that has never been touched."

A Help Center Is Born

By the time the Legislature returned to session in 1903, McCarthy had taken a bold step. In addition to caring for the materials in his collection, he had turned the library into a help center of sorts for legislators. In addition to its traditional document collection, the library provided up-to-date materials on pertinent issues--and McCarthy's expert advice on where any information could be found.

Today's library visitors might not see this as an innovation, but in 1903, McCarthy's vision represented nothing short of a rupture. Traditionally, a library mainly housed knowledge; under McCarthy, the Wisconsin library actively disseminated it. This broke the rules in the library business--legislative or otherwise.

What inspired McCarthy to transform his library into the beginnings of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau? No one really knows. The state library wasn't even paying him. Some claim McCarthy wanted to do New York's State Library, led by Melvil Dewey, one better. Others argue the Capitol's proximity to the university played a role.

Regardless, McCarthy had started something new and exciting. He reached out to legislators, receiving strong support and requests for more services. And he quickly secured a significantly larger budget.

The Wisconsin Idea

McCarthy's library soon began to provide many of the services now associated with the modern legislative staff--he compiled information, shared it with lawmakers and other state governments, and wrote legislation. …

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