Monday, March 5, 2012

In the Works! An Electronic Legislative Biographical Database

Here at the State Library, we receive numerous requests for information regarding past and current Massachusetts legislators. In addition to our “Bird Books”, one great resource that we’ve provided for over one hundred years is our Legislative Biographical File, which is located behind the library’s reference desk on the 3rd floor.

This collection contains well over 20,000 index cards, alphabetically indexed by last name, with legislative biographical information that spans over 300 years—beginning from as early as the 18th century. Information provided on both the front and back of each card contains the legislator’s first and last names, and, if known, his or her middle name or initial, birth and death dates, birthplace and place of death, place(s) of residence, date(s) in which the individual served in the House or Senate, party affiliation, occupation, and education; other information that sometimes appears includes date of baptism, further details concerning a legislator’s death, and the location in which the legislator is buried.

This collection of biographical materials would not exist if it had not been for Caleb Tillinghast, Massachusetts’ first State Librarian. Tillinghast (b. 1843-d. 1909) was deeply interested in genealogy, and was driven by his passion to compile biographical information about all of the Massachusetts legislators. In his efforts to retrieve this information, he estimated that he had sent out more than 75,000 letters and questionnaires total; much of these manuscript materials, upon which our Legislative Biographical file is based, can be located in our Special Collections. For more information on Caleb Tillinghast, please visit our blog entry, which discusses his life and contributions he made during the span of his career:

As part of the State Library’s reference department, I am currently in the final stages compiling this legislative biographical information into a database for in-house use. It is our hope in the near future to convert the database to one that is electronically accessible for library users through our DSpace repository. Every index card in the collection has been digitized, and it is our ultimate plan to link searchable metadata to each card image, as well as link digitized images from our legislative photograph collection.

This huge endeavor, though, has not been without a few bumps along the way. Some of the cards provide inconsistent, ambiguous, or even incorrect information that has snagged the process, and further research has not always proven successful in untangling questions that arise. In addition, many cards provide decidedly little or no information other than the legislator’s name. City and town names, as well as municipalities, have changed over the years, so information on locations and naming conventions has been an issue during the compiling process, as well.

If you’re doing research or have general questions about a specific Massachusetts legislator, please come by Room 341 of the State Library. In addition, you can contact us by phone at 617-727-2590, or through our Ask a Librarian online form at:

Library hours are: 9:00am – 5:00pm Monday through Friday

Kaitlin Connolly
Library Technician, Reference Department