James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Reaching way, way back for state records

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: June 25, 2014 - 11:10 AM

Want to see the letters in 1976 in which Gov. Wendell Anderson resigned and was immediately appointed by his successor to the U.S. Senate? Or Gov. Orville Freeman's order calling out the National Guard to restore order during a violent meatpacking strike in Albert Lea in 1959? 

Anyone with a computer can now summon 90 years of records from the Minnesota Secretary of State, now digitized in collaboration with the Legislative Reference Library, using a $7,000 Legacy grant. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has embraced the open data movement that is pushing government to open up its vast databases to the public. While no one is particularly hungry for 50-year-old plumbing bond records, it's still heartening to see agencies following through on digital rhetoric.

The 40,000 records reflect the office's role as the record-keeper of officials actions, some of them truly obscure. They include proclamations, foreign consul registrations, proclamations, official records of towns and more. Once you find the index card, you put the document number in the box to the right to retrieve the document. One of the more interesting classes of documents, extraditions, appears not to have been filmed.

Poking around in the database, I came across one letter, dated April 13, 1942, from the Legation of Switzerland. The Minnesota Secretary of State had apparently been sending out notices about estate matters involving German citizens to the closed German Embassy, and those letters had gone through wartime censors and then ended up in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where Nazi diplomats were held captive after the United States entered World War II. In the future, the Swiss official writes to the Secretary of State, send those notices directly to him. "Switzerland, as you know, has been designated as Protecting Power for German interests in the United States." 

Photo above: Star Tribune file photo of special deputy outside Wilson packing plant in Albert Lea during the labor unrest, January 1960

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