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N.C. Manual struggles to stay alive in Google world

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

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  • Find it online

    The online edition of most recent N.C. Manual is at http://www.secretary.state.nc.us/pubsweb/manual.aspx



RALEIGH The North Carolina Manual, the hefty reference volume that’s served as the go-to almanac on government for more than a century for state politicians, schoolchildren and historians, may be slowly dying.

It’s been the job of the North Carolina secretary of state for the past 75 years to collect and produce the anthology of government facts and personalities, then distribute them for free to most every government agency, state elected official, university, secondary school and public library. Anyone else could purchase a copy for $10 or a little more.

But the manual has fallen victim to budget cuts and technology. The public more often uses Google to learn the names of current representatives, recent election results or the official state flower, rather than look it up in a dated book.

Since budget reductions during the Great Recession, the manual hasn’t been printed in book form since the 2007-08 edition. The 2009-10 version is posted online, but the task of getting the 2011-12 edition up is behind schedule as workers in Secretary of State Elaine Marshall’s office take on more responsibility.

The General Assembly hasn’t been interested in providing funds that would revive the manual’s printed publication, or improve its online presence, according to Marshall’s office.

“I think it’s a tragedy that this publication would not be widely available,” Marshall said in an interview.

For years it was considered among the most popular reference books in libraries, she added.

In addition to names and biographical data on hundreds of elected and appointed officials in North Carolina, the manual contains a state history, state and federal constitutions, election results, and detailed population figures.

‘Valuable compendium’

Want to know the name of North Carolina’s first attorney general (George Durant in 1677)? Go to the manual. The birthday of former Gov. Jim Hunt? Look in the 1997-98 edition and you’ll discover it’s May 16, 1937. Don’t know the words to the state song (“The Old North State”)? The manual gives a picture of the sheet music.

“It was a really valuable compendium of information,” said Jeffrey Crow, the retired head of the state Office of Archives and History. Contents proved useful for schoolchildren completing an assignment on North Carolina government.

Marshall’s office said it didn’t seek cuts to the manual. But it’s not surprising that publishing the manual and another book was on the chopping block when the state struggled to close billions of dollars in shortfalls in 2009 and 2010. The secretary of state already performs duties such as keeping corporation records, registering lobbyists and qualifying notaries public.

The manual was consistently more than 1,000 pages in the 1990s and 2000s and included dozens of color pages. Maybe 5,000 or 6,000 copies would be produced, although Marshall’s office said the 2007-08 edition had about 3,000 copies at a cost of less than $28,000.

First, the General Assembly agreed to reduce money for printing by almost $20,000. Later, at the recommendation of Gov. Bev Perdue’s budget proposal, legislators eliminated the director of the office’s Publications Division.

Online competition arises

While librarians surveyed during the past decade often called the manual useful, more research and reference volumes were being posted online and produced in digital form. The printed manual also wouldn’t come out until the terms of General Assembly members listed in the volume had already ended.

“A printed publication comes in, and it’s already out of date,” said Billy King, supervisor of the North Carolina Room at the Forsyth County Public Library and a leader in the North Carolina Library Association.

The legislature didn’t end the requirement to produce the manual, which now rests largely on the shoulders of public information officer Liz Proctor. Marshall’s office wanted to post the 2011-12 version of the manual by the middle of last year, but Proctor said staffing limitations, software changes and other responsibilities have led to delays. She hopes it will be posted soon.

Many of the facts in the North Carolina Manual also are in smaller books produced by outside groups or nonprofits. But those books don’t have the same authoritative nature the manual has had.

Great demand in past years

The manual’s prototype was first published in 1874 as the Legislative Manual and Political Register, but then publication ceased until 1903, when it began to be produced biennially, according to documents in the state Legislative Library. The manual expanded its coverage and became bound in 1913.

The secretary of state, the North Carolina Historical Commission or legislative library issued the manual during the first decades of the 20th century.

“The demand for these volumes had been so great that all previous editions have been exhausted,” according to the preface of the 1939 edition. The General Assembly mandated the secretary of state produce the book later that year.

There it was under the eye of Secretary of State Thad Eure, who served for 53 years until 1989. For his first edition in 1941, Eure wrote in the book that he hoped it would “prove useful, interesting and informative.”

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