Next ‘Blue Book’ Features Wisconsin Capitol Press History

Every two years, analysts from the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau publish a guide to state government called the “Blue Book.”

Originally published as a handbook for legislators in 1853, the book evolved to include a featured article in each edition exploring some part of the state’s history. Recent editions have looked at how lawmakers passed veterans’ bills despite political divisions about World War I and how the first political crisis in the state unfolded in 1856, when two candidates won in the gubernatorial election.

LRB analyst Jillian Slaight is the author of the veterans and political crisis articles and is working on the upcoming issue’s feature article on the history of Wisconsin political news coverage. Slaight recently joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” to discuss his research, political map redesign and other curiosities about the state’s “Blue Book.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Kate Archer Kent: Do you know why the “Blue Book” is blue?

Jillian Slaight: Technically it’s blue because under state law it has to be blue. The back should be blue. We had some hot water a few years ago for going a little more gray on the cover.

The reason it’s blue, I guess, has something to do with the book it came from, which was a legislative manual. It was a small pocket volume. You can kind of think of it as the equivalent of the smartphone for legislators in the 1850s. They kept it in their coat pocket and took it out to look at it for information.

From some research I’ve done on the history of the “Blue Book”, it appears that it was informally called the “Blue Book” for maybe 20 years before it became (officially) the “Blue Book” in 1879.

KAK: The “Blue Book” contains maps of each legislator’s district, and as we know, redistricting was recently blocked in the state Supreme Court. Did it delay being able to integrate the details of the cards into the writing of the book?

JS: It all depends on whether those cards change again, which anyone can guess. But the truth is that everything is constantly changing with the “Blue Book”. The issue of ever-changing cards is not new to us. Each biennium, special elections are called just before the book is printed. There are people who are appointed to boards at the last minute. The missions of the parliamentary committees are modified. We’re pretty used to changing content at the last minute before it’s sent to the printer.

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While the physical “Blue Book” is a great resource, you can also access all of the content at the LRB website. And if by chance the cards change after they are printed, those changes will be reflected on our website.

KAK: Why continue to print physical copies of this book?

JS: We talk about it at least since the last seasons that I spent. One of the issues I’ve worked on as an analyst is broadband availability, and there’s still a lot of the state that doesn’t have access to some of the online resources that we use. to compile the “Blue Book”. Or people don’t have the expertise to know where to find this information. I know this is a handy reference for incarcerated populations who can access all of this current information if they don’t have independent internet access.

KAK: In the edition you are working on, you present a chapter on Capitol media correspondents. What are they talking about?

JS: In the past, the feature article at the center of each “Blue Book” has explored something unique about Wisconsin history or society, and it often represents the culmination of work someone has done at the agency and wants to share with the readership. For 2023, we seek to use the feature article to showcase this larger research project we are conducting on the political press in Wisconsin and its evolution over time.

We are so dependent on the press to understand what is going on in our state governments. And I’ve always been curious about what it’s like to cover state politics and government, and how that’s changed over the last 10, 20, 50 years. How social media changed that. How different media models and changes in newspaper circulation have changed what it means to cover the Capitol. How the pandemic has changed the work of political coverage.

We hope to answer some of these questions with oral history interviews with current and past members of the press, and then share these findings with the people of the “Blue Book” of 2023.

KAK: Do other states have a “Blue Book” or are we unique?

JS: Other states have similar reference books, but I think ours is more robust and really speaks to the fact that we have this robust support structure for the legislature that provides research and information to legislators and the public. And the “Blue Book” is a kind of manifestation of this.

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