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Authoritative N.C. Manual trying to stay alive

The Associated Press

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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 become victim to budget cuts and technology. The public more often uses Google to learn the names of their 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 getting the 2011-12 edition up is behind schedule as workers in Marshall’s office have more responsibilities.

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

“I think it’s a tragedy that this publication would not be widely available,” Marshall said. For years it was considered among the most popular reference books in libraries, she said.

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

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 (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 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 publishing the manual and another book was on the 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 over 1,000 pages in the 1990s and early 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. Beverly Perdue’s budget proposal, legislators eliminated the director of the office’s Publications Division.

While librarians surveyed during the last 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 the people in the General Assembly inside 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 within 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 they don’t engender the same authoritative nature the manual has had.

The manual’s prototype was first published in 1874 as the “Legislative Manual and Political Register,” but then publication ceased until 1903, when it then got 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 has 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 Jr., who served for 53 years until 1989. For his first edition in 1941, Eure wrote inside that he hoped the manual would “prove useful, interesting and informative.”