Monday, July 26, 2021

The Officialness Problem of Online Legal and Legislative Documents in Massachusetts

When the current pandemic caused widespread closures of law libraries, government archives, and courthouses, it magnified an issue that greatly affects everyone seeking official legal and legislative documents.  The printed volumes, which are currently considered the only official version of laws and legislative documents in Massachusetts, were--and in some cases still are--not accessible; more than ever the public has had to rely on digital versions of the Massachusetts General Laws, Code of Massachusetts Regulations, legislative acts and resolves, bills, journals, and so on.  The desire for greater and easier access to legal and legislative materials online continues to grow, but it raises an important issue regarding the officialness of online versions of such documents.

For example, the Massachusetts legislature’s website makes it clear that the online version of the Massachusetts General Laws is not official: 

But what if this is the only version anyone can get access to?  This is also problematic when the official print volumes of documents have not yet been published, in some cases for many years, but the unofficial versions are available online through the authoritative source.

The Uniform Law Commission, since 2011, has been working with states to adopt legislation called the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA).  The act, as described by the Commission, “establishes an outcomes-based, technology-neutral framework for providing online legal material with the same level of trustworthiness traditionally provided by publication in a law book.”  Currently, 21 states and Washington DC have adopted UELMA; however, Massachusetts is not yet among these states.  As Butch Lazorchak of the Library of Congress succinctly states in his 2012 blog about digital document authenticity, “Digital legislative materials are not going to go away.”  It was meant to be a statement to the obvious, but almost 10 years later this has proven to be completely true.  While Massachusetts has pending legislation for the current 2021-2022 session (see H1597), previous attempts have failed without much action.  Until UELMA passes in the commonwealth, access to official versions of legal and legislative documents remains limited to traditional print resources that are only available in law libraries and other institutions that specialize in such collections.

For more information about UELMA and related subjects:

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department

Monday, July 19, 2021

True Crime Resources and the Borden Murder Trial

There are few criminal trials more famous in Massachusetts than the infamous murder trial of Lizzie Borden, born on this day (July 19) in 1860. Regardless of whether you believe Borden did or did not kill her father and stepmother in 1892, the State Library’s collections include many interesting resources from the late 1800’s to newer volumes regarding the many theories surrounding the case.

Lizzie Borden was born and lived in Fall River, Massachusetts in the later half of the 19th century. She had an older sister named Emma and grew up in an affluent religious Congregational household. Their mother died when the sisters were young, and three years afterward their father Andrew Jackson Borden married their stepmother, Abby Durfee Gray. It appears that Lizzie and Emma did not like Abby, so much so that Lizzie rarely dined with her parents and later the sisters traveled to New Bedford following a family row. Tension within the family continued to rise as the sisters believed their stepmother was primarily interested in their father’s wealth, especially after he appeared to gift property to members of Abby’s family.

Postcard featuring Lizzie Borden and her residence where
the murders occurred
. Courtesy of the Fall River Public Library.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, according to the testimony provided by the Bordens’ housemaid Bridget Sullivan, Abby went upstairs to clean the guest room between 9 and 10:30 in the morning, where Lizzie allegedly killed her with a hatchet. Her father arrived at the house as Sullivan supposedly heard Lizzie laughing upstairs, but Lizzie dismissed the maid and then allegedly also killed her father around 11am. 

The investigation that took place afterward was full of contradictions. Lizzie’s alibi changed multiple times, her answers often appeared strange or contradicted each other, and her behavior throughout the investigation and inquest was erratic. The police admitted that they did not thoroughly check her or her house for evidence, nor did they remove any of the hatchets found in the home during the investigation. Her trial took place in New Bedford in June 1893, and Lizzie’s legal team included former Massachusetts governor George D. Robinson. The trial lasted 15 days, and afterward the jury acquitted her after just an hour and a half of deliberation. No one else was ever charged for the murders, and despite being ostracized Lizzie remained in Fall River until her death in 1927.

Illustration of Lizzie Borden and her counsel,
former governor George D. Robinson at the trial,
by Benjamin West Clinedinst (1893).
Courtesy of WikiCommons.

At the time, the Lizzie Borden trial was a national sensation, receiving extensive coverage and even a three-page article in the Boston Globe before the trial even began. If you are interested in the grisly testimony and twists and turns regarding this case, check out the historical resources listed below:

For more publications regarding the Lizzie Borden murder case in the State Library’s collections, please search our catalog.

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Department 

Monday, July 12, 2021

July Virtual Author Talk: Dorothy Wickenden

The fascinating and crucial stories of abolition, the Underground Railroad, the early women’s rights movement, and the Civil War – told from the perspective of three remarkable women. 

Join us to hear the story of the “agitators,” three friends and neighbors in Auburn, New York, at the forefront of cultural change during the Civil War years. Harriet Tubman was one of the most important conductors on the underground railroad. Martha Wright, Quaker mother of seven, and Frances Seward, wife of Governor, then Senator, then Secretary of State William H. Seward, were fellow agitators, hiding enslaved men, women, and children rescued by Tubman in their basement kitchens. Through these women’s richly detailed and intimate letters, Dorothy Wickenden brings to life their remarkable work, including their personal and political intersections with Lincoln, Seward, Daniel Webster, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison. Don’t missing hearing about The Agitators and this extraordinary period of American history.

Dorothy Wickenden is executive editor of The New Yorker, where she is also a writer and moderator of its weekly podcast The Political Scene. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, she was previously national affairs editor at Newsweek and executive editor at The New Republic. She is the author of Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West.  

S.C. Gwynne is the author of Hymns of the Republic and the New York Times bestsellers Rebel Yell and Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. As a journalist, he has worked at Time as bureau chief, national correspondent, and senior editor; and at Texas Monthly as executive editor. 

To register for this free online event, please visit: 

Be sure to check out other upcoming events hosted by our partners:

Author Talks Committee
State Library of Massachusetts

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Happy 4th of July!

To celebrate Independence Day, the State Library is virtually sharing a copy of the Declaration of Independence found in its holdings. The Library’s copy was printed by E. Russell in Salem, Massachusetts in 1776. To view a high resolution version of this document visit the Library’s digital repository, DSpace.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Friends of the Library Newsletter - July issue

The July issue of the Friends of the Library newsletter is out! Click here to download your own copy.