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Wisconsin State Capitol (copy)

The Wisconsin State Capitol

A state law librarians' association on Thursday issued a letter accusing the Legislative Reference Bureau of putting its mission to provide information and archive state records in jeopardy.

“The Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) recently eliminated half of its library staff, imperiling its statutory duties, according to Wis. State. 13.92(1), of collecting information that will aid the legislature and ‘citizens generally,’” reads the letter from Kris Turner, president of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin, to LRB director Rick Champagne and to legislative leaders. “The continued devaluation of the LRB Library is emblematic of the decline in services offered by the LRB in recent years as LRB administration has unwisely shifted their focus away from providing easily accessible information and historical data towards a false dependence on Google and other imperfect internet search engines.”

The letter follows the termination of two of four librarian positions at the LRB, which was founded in 1901 to provide information and research services for legislators and the public. According to a May 9 email to state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, from Champagne, the termination of the librarian positions was due to technical innovations.

“It was a difficult decision, but we did not have enough work to sustain the employment of four full-time librarians,” he wrote.

The librarians who were let go on May 4 dispute that.

Keely Wrolstad said she and the other fired librarian, Rachel Holtan, were the only ones trained in maintaining the state’s digital archive, a statutorily mandated project.

“With both of us gone there’s nobody there that can do this work,” she said.

In a story earlier this week, Holtan told Isthmus: “I don’t care about my job. I’m worried about the collection, I’m worried about the library. I’m worried that 50 years from now, five years from now, people will be like, ‘What happened?’ and it will be too late.”

The digital archives include a record of state government, including reports and analyses from councils, task forces and committees from all three branches of government.

As examples of what is not being archived, Wrolstad pointed to a record of those denied concealed carry permits and annual payday loan reports.

“As time passes, people will realize nobody’s adding things to it,” she said of the archive in general.

Wrolstad said Champagne has also cut back on the print archive, including putting an end to collecting news clips on important governmental events.

Champagne, in an email, said, “Our remaining two full-time librarians will easily be able to handle the LRB’s library duties and will continue to be assisted by the LRB’s eight research/policy analysts. There will not be less material archived and there will be no roll-back of LRB legal, research, or information services.”

He said the digital archive and the print collection will “continue to grow.”

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“LRB services are not contracting or being scaled-back in any way,” he said. “Technology has vastly improved the delivery of information to the public and the LRB has taken advantage of that technology. Our staff and services are expanding, but we do not have the kind of work that requires four full-time librarians.”

Since Champagne took over the LRB in 2015, reference staff has gone from 14 to eight. In his email to Erpenbach, he said he plans to add two lawyers and two policy analysts.

Wrolstad said that in that time a lot of turnover has taken place.

“Of the 14 people who were there when he started, there are only three left,” she said.

She attributed some of those departures to a “toxic atmosphere.”

“Current staff is overworked, and morale is terrible,” she said.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz is a member of the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization, which oversees the LRB. Hintz staffer Aaron Collins said, “current services aren’t being reduced or anything, it was just a work allocation issue.”

Told of Wrolstad’s complaints, he said, “Obviously if it is a former employee’s word against Rick, that’s not in our purview, but this is just what Rick told us.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.