June 1, 2018.
The Library of Michigan is pleased to make available the Michigan Legislative Biography Database. Through the efforts of staff and numerous volunteers, we have developed a searchable repository of information allowing researchers to compile lists such as “How many legislators were born in England?”; “Who were the first African American legislators?” or to discover facts such as when did the first woman serve in the legislature.
The Michigan Legislative Biography Database covers members of the Michigan state legislature from the first session following statehood in 1835 through the current session. Information available for the earliest members is sometimes scant but efforts are being made to gather what can be found. Over 5,500 have served in the legislature as of 2018.
Many thanks to the volunteers that have helped to make this database more complete!
Over the years, the reference staff at the Library of Michigan has fielded numerous questions related to the legislature that were impossible to do without hours of combing through Michigan Manuals and other materials. Whenever a legislator has legal/ethical difficulties, comparisons are in demand, inspiring us to create the Michigan Legislative Biography Database. One of the search fields is “Reason for Leaving,” so now we can search for ‘expelled’ members and those that ‘resigned.’ In addition, for many years, the Library has had an association with genealogical research. This drove us to include more data elements rather than just the basics.
The Michigan Legislative Biography Database represents the first comprehensive listing of members of Michigan’s legislature since the Michigan Manual list in 1923. To date there have been over 5,400 individuals in office. Michigan has had term limits since 1993, so the list grows more quickly than ever.
In creating such a database, it is important to relate your needs to programmers so that the search engine does what you intend it to do. We did not anticipate some of the detail needed and consequently keyword searching is not what we, as librarians, had thought it would be and true Boolean searching is not available. The keyword feature is really character string searching that finds only exact matches.
That being said, users can determine who has served in the most sessions, create lists by race; age at election; home county etc [see search form at https://mdoe.state.mi.us/legislators/Legislator/Search for all searchable fields]. Users may, in more complicated research, need to create multiple Excel spreadsheets and compare them to eliminate false hits. For example, when looking for legislators that were both a lawyer and a physician, do ‘occupation’ searches for each and compare the results.
Development began by discussing the types of things we had been asked for in the past and projecting a few things that might be asked or attempted if there were ways to more easily search for them. ‘Who represented my district over time’ was a recurring dream. Since boundaries and district names change over time, it might more aptly be called a recurring nightmare. To address this, we included a ‘district descriptions’ field so that county, city and township names could be listed. Entering this data is no small feat, and we have not completed entering that data. There was a point in the 1920s when they stopped listing the communities by name and referred users of the Manuals to maps, and later, some urban district text descriptions became paragraphs long, as they listed street boundaries, railroad tracks… Given time and a financial investment we would like to add links to district maps someday.
Determining racial groups can be as complicated as determining the race of the individuals. Which terms to use, how many to include? What about mixed race individuals? Using US Census records via Ancetry.com and other online versions of the census has helped with those members located on the census through 1940 but race is not always stated in other records. A publication by the Michigan Black Caucus helped with African American members but smaller minorities are more elusive.
It is hard to believe in todays political atmosphere, but legislators did not always lead with their party allegiance. In the past it was not unusual to change parties or form short term fusion parties and it is not always easy to determine which party an individual belonged to in the nineteenth century. The party statistics area of the database needed to be tweaked at one point to indicate non-Republican or Democratic members. A little math may be needed to determine the number of members for whom a party has not been identified.
The session data portion of the database includes the names of the members by session. It also lists al of the committees and those serving on each and the names of those in positions of authority, such as Speaker, Whip… These are areas where the variation in committee names and position titles will astound. Each legislature puts its own stamp on its session by rearranging, renaming, combining, expanding and contracting committees. Where there were once just minority whips, now there are assistant minority whips, assistant associate minority whips and more. Giving the administrator/editor the ability to expand the various ‘types’ for position entry, as well as others such as parties and committees, is critical. These preset, dropdowns save a lot of time with data entry and avoid typing errors.
Our database will never be quite done. New legislators are made every two years! Desirable enhancements have already suggested themselves but will have to wait until money can be found to finance the additional programming costs.
In conclusion, if you venture into this territory, fight for continuity and focus from the programmers developing your search engine. Frequent changes in personnel and halts in their work make for uneven quality, misunderstandings and delayed completion. Make clear how you would like to manipulate search results to get the flexibility you need. Recruit volunteers to help enter the mountains of data to be included. Some work is just transcribing data, easily done by individuals with no special technical or research expertise. It will free you up to do the more complex data excavation.
Library of Michigan