The State Office Building is the first structure you meet on a short walk southwest from the Minnesota State Capitol. During the legislative session each spring, the building is a hive of activity. Staffers hustle up and down worn marble stairs, legislators juggle file folders and cell phone calls, and constituents huddle in matching t-shirts, hoping to find their representative’s office in time for the meeting they scheduled months ago. Above it all, on the sixth floor, sits the Legislative Reference Library.
For now, at least. The century-old State Office Building is slated for extensive renovation, to be completed in 2026. In the meantime, the reference library’s collection will be stored in the Capitol and its 15-member staff will relocate east across the Capital Mall to the Centennial Office Building. The move won’t get in the way of their mission, though. Their primary service is what Elizabeth Lincoln, the library’s director, calls “full-service reference.”
It’s specialized work. “You either love it or you hate it,” says Reference Librarian Molly Niehls (pronounced like the river in Egypt, but with an ‘s’ at the end). It’s apparent that many love it. Three current staff members have worked at the library for over 25 years: Lincoln, Deputy Director David Schmidtke, and Reference Services Manager Betsy Haugen.
Full-service reference means answering big, open-ended questions. “Please send me everything you can find on deer management near soybean fields.” “Has anybody figured out how to preserve the local five-and-dime when a chain store comes to town?” “I heard about a bill up for debate in New York state on cost-effective water pollution control measures. Can you get the text for me?” They answer each one, often continuing to follow up with new discoveries long after the question was asked.
Frankly, it sounds pretty great. As Lincoln and Niehls told me about it, my mind wandered to a run for the legislature purely as a means to access full-service reference for myself. The pair share a demeanor that is at once calm, kind, and focused. It’s a demeanor that inspires trust, something they value above almost anything else. The entire staff at the Legislative Reference Library keeps any hint of partisanship out of their work, and even their personal lives. You won’t find any political signs on their lawns or bumper stickers on their cars. Unless maybe it says, “MAKE YOUR NEXT STOP THE LIBRARY.”
Their patrons' trust is rewarded with services and resources tailored to their specific needs. Subscribers to the library’s Inside Issues service get a list of articles every week related to the topics of their choice. It runs on a classification scheme developed in-house. Each week, reference library staff personally review a predetermined list of publications and categorize the articles that will make their way into their subscribers’ email inboxes.
They also manage a mediated interlibrary loan service. “Almost always when we have a digital request we can’t fill, it goes to Minitex,” says Niehls. “It is truly stunning how fast it is. I’m not trying to be flattering here, it just really is amazing. I requested five articles yesterday and they came within an hour.”
In addition to their mission to provide timely information to the legislature, the library is charged with collecting state-issued publications. Building the collection over the years has led to a reputation for efficient, high-quality original cataloging. That reputation is due, in no small part, to the efforts of cataloger Carol Blackburn, who served the library for almost 40 years. Her successor, Laura Bell, has carried the tradition forward since 2020.
The Herculean task of assembling Committee Minute Books for each legislative session is managed by Elaine Settergren. The library has complete records dating to 1999. These include everything down to original signatures, hand-written notes, and coffee stains.
They even maintain Subject Notebooks on various topics, including three under the heading, “Minnesota Praise.” Whenever a reputable organization ranks Minnesota (or one of its cities) at the top of a list, it’s added to the notebook. Is there an entry under “America’s Best Legislative Reference Libraries?” There probably should be.
Capitol Area Library Consortium (CALCO) libraries work cooperatively to promote and enhance library services in state government through unique and diverse collections of resources. CALCO strives for easy access to state government library services and resources by state employees, local government officials, Minnesota citizens, and other libraries nationwide. These are the CALCO libraries:
- Attorney General Library
- Department of Employment and Economic Development Library
- Department of Health, Barr Library
- Department of Natural Resources Library
- Department of Revenue Library
- Department of Transportation Library
- Legislative Reference Library
- Minnesota Historical Society Library
- Minnesota State Services for the Blind
- Perpich Center for Arts Education Library
- Pollution Control Agency Library
- State Law Library
- State Library Services