Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Moving Forward with Legislative History

As a reference librarian, I have come to expect certain things from patrons hoping to do legislative history. For those who have never had to complete the process before, there is often a look of panic that comes over them as you point to all the walls of books they will need to go through and describe the process of ‘reading between the lines’ to find intent. As someone who also had to learn how to backtrack a law using material like the General Laws, the Acts and Resolves and Senate and House Journals, I understand the dread a patron feels as they disappear behind a tower of oversized books. Legislative history in Massachusetts can be complicated and the library staff has put together a number of helpful resources to guide patrons through the process. Nevertheless, the older a law is the more difficult it can be to find the information you need.

The good news is that it is getting easier. For more recent bills, a number of online resources are gathering the information in one place so that legislative history can be done in less time and with less ambiguity. The legislature’s website is a great place to start. They have the General Laws available as well as Acts starting in 1997 and Resolves starting in 1998. If you have the act number, you will even be able to find the number of the bill that was passed. While perhaps to today’s standards this step may seem basic and obvious, finding this bill number for older laws can take time and some careful maneuvering through various sources. With the Legislature’s website it can be found in an instant.

With this bill number and the year, you have the tools to then use the resource Instatrac. Instatrac, or MassTrac, is a bill-tracking service the State Library subscribes to so it can only be used by patrons on location at the State House. Even without the bill number, you can search by keywords, categories and other citations to find the information you may need. The database contains legislative information including bill text, history, committee information, reports, news articles, votes, press releases and even floor debate for more recent bills. Since it is constantly being updated, it is also a wonderful way to track bills that are still being debated in the current session. For laws enacted after 1995, Instatrac allows a patron doing legislative history to follow a bill from its original text to the day it’s signed into law.

We at the library know how difficult the legislative history process can be, especially for those who are working on older laws or who cannot visit the library. We have already put all Acts and Resolves online and are working to put up all of Legislative Documents (bills). Nevertheless, sometimes the information desired will not be available. With online resources like the legislature’s website, Instatrac, and news services archiving their articles like the Boston Globe and the State House News Service, this process will continue to get easier and how and why a bill became law may get clearer.

Stephanie Turnbull
Reference Librarian