The latest edition of Wisconsin’s Blue Book is, well, not blue.

The marble gray cover — a reference to the hue of the 100-year-old State Capitol’s exterior — is the first of many noticeable changes to the iconic biennial compendium of all things state government, which was delivered to the Capitol last week and was being distributed Monday.

Compared with its predecessors, the tome is much slimmer — 677 pages, compared with 973 pages in the 2015-’16 version — has noticeably larger type and poorly cropped photos of lawmakers.

The spine of the book was also redesigned, with “Wisconsin Blue Book” turned on its side and filling a blue field, parting with more than a century of books that read “Blue Book” in small horizontal lettering. And the inside cover doesn’t include illustrations of Wisconsin’s symbols such as the state flag, bird, wild animal and tree.

“This is the New Coke of legislative publications,” said Brian Fraley, a Republican strategist who started a #KeepTheBlueBooksBlue hashtag on Twitter. “It’s silly and let’s just hope it’s a one-year perversion of this book.”

Richard Champagne, chief of the Legislative Reference Bureau, which publishes the Blue Book, said he decided to update the book’s design for the 2017-’18 edition to make it more accessible to 10th-graders. One of the statutory requirements of the book is that it can be used in a high school civics class, he noted.

“I was trying to balance how do you publish a book that is about Wisconsin politics, but also recognizes the fact that the average citizen is going to go online and search elsewhere,” said Champagne, who has led the reference bureau since 2014.

In previous sessions Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, has proposed eliminating or scaling back production of the Blue Book, though the legislation failed to garner enough support to pass. August wasn’t available for comment Monday.

Reducing the size of the Blue Book cut the cost of publishing 64,500 copies from $320,000 to $230,000, which comes from the Legislature’s budget. It required the same amount of reference bureau staff time as the last edition because of the redesign, but future editions will likely take less time to produce, Champagne said.

However, Champagne added, the decision to shrink the book was not because of budget cuts or any other financial consideration.

“We’re really hoping that it will be used,” Champagne said. “I felt like one of our goals was for people to read this. Actually read it.”

Long history

The Blue Book was first published in 1853, as a 100-page pocket-size reference guide for the Assembly, and it has been produced biennially since 1885. The Legislative Reference Bureau has produced the book since 1966.

Champagne said the last time the cover wasn’t blue was in the 1950s, when an edition was black.

The Blue Book has served as an encyclopedic almanac chock full of historical data, tables and biographical information. The latest edition removed 150 pages of tables and cut another 100 pages from the section that describes each executive branch agency, Champagne said.

Champagne acknowledged the photo cropping of state lawmakers could have been done better and will be fixed for the online version. He said he liked the new cover and that it “probably captures the spirit of why we have a Blue Book.”

A synopsis on the back cover calls the book “the official comprehensive source for information about the State of Wisconsin,” though Champagne wrote in the new edition that it is intended as an “introduction to Wisconsin state and local government, but not necessarily as the primary source for this information.”

Champagne said those statements aren’t contradictory because the Blue Book “remains the most comprehensive source of information on Wisconsin government that can be found in one volume” while recognizing “there is a world of information on Wisconsin government that is available on the Internet that cannot be reproduced in one volume.”

The book still contains legislator biographies, election results and legislative actions, but doesn’t produce “information that is dated or that can be obtained more easily and accurately elsewhere.”

Champagne said the information that was removed can be found in state agency publications and publications produced by the U.S. Department of Commerce and Census Bureau. He said “the most vital information” from previous books is included in the current book.

Whether future editions will return to a blue cover or include any other changes, Champagne said it will depend on “how it all goes in the next few months.”

“I have my ears open,” he said. “I am open to ideas.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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