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How to conduct legislative research and write a legislative history
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How to conduct legislative research and write a legislative history

Below, the goal, objective, scope, and product for a legislative history are specified along with a suggested strategy for writing a legislative history.


Knowledge of U.S. proposed or enacted law regarding a defined problem based on consulting legislative records.


Credible reporting of government action.


A written document tracing either history of a single law or history of laws on an issue.


Either a single law or an issue involving multiple laws. Relevant action might be at the federal, state, or municipal level, or at several levels. In addition to legislative records, administrative records of rule-making and regulation as well as judicial records of litigation might be needed.


Multiple approaches are available. No single approach to government records research fits all; however, you will save time and frustration by planning before you start.

Use the following guidelines to select a strategy:

Know why the research is needed

Legislative uses for the re­search might be satisfied with past records. In contrast, legal uses might require very current information not yet recorded that only an informant can provide. Knowing the purpose for the research tells you what, and how much, to look for. Will the information be used to make new law (legislative) or to interpret existing law (legal)?

In either case, there might be a published history that meets the purpose. Or you might need to find the records required to write a specialized history. Knowing the purpose for the research can help you (or a librarian assisting you) to decide where to look first. Do you want to find a history or write one?

Know the user, and the user’s purpose for the information

Who, exactly, will use the information, and what is his or her inter­est or need? The user might be you, gathering information for personal use or for an academic or internship assignment. Or the user for whom you are conducting the research might be a legislator who wants to amend an existing law. Knowing the user’s purpose tells you what, and how much, to look for. Federal records only? State or municipal records also?

Set the scope

Will the research follow a single law through all its forms and related actions—bill, codified statute, administration, regulation, amendment, and (possibly) adjudication? Or will your re­search follow an issue through policy changes and across multiple laws over time? What is the relevant time frame? What is the relevant level of government?

Take the necessary time, and manage your time.

Records research can take hours, days, or weeks, depending on how much you already know, what you are looking for, where the records are, how well you have planned, and other contingencies. Prepare for the reality that legislative records research will take time, probably more time than you initially planned. What is your deadline for completing the research? What is your schedule for conducting the research and writing the necessary documents?

Use existing skills, and add needed ones

If you have a well-defined problem, are willing to learn, are curious and persistent, and have basic research skills including ability to ask questions, identify relevant sources, and search computer databases, you are basically ready to perform legislative research.

You might need to learn about the legislative process, government record types, and standard tools for researching government records.

Next, you'll want to review the tasks involved in conducting legislative research and writing a legislative history.

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