Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

One Title, Hundreds of Volumes, Thousands of Documents: Collaborating to Describe the Congressional Serial Set

Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

One Title, Hundreds of Volumes, Thousands of Documents: Collaborating to Describe the Congressional Serial Set

Article excerpt

In 1817, construction began on the Erie Canal. Mississippi became a state. Coffee was first planted in Hawaii. Baltimore became the first city in the United States to be lit by gas street lamps. And the publication we now know as the Congressional Serial Set (CSS) began.

Congress and the executive branch had been issuing documents since 1789, but in our nation's early years these publications were neither numbered nor issued regularly in serial collections. (1) They have since been collected into the American State Papers. (2)

Beginning with the Fifteenth Congress (1817), however, documents issued by Congress and, for the next hundred years, many executive documents as well, were systematically numbered and gathered into a series called by a variety of names over time, but which we now know as the CSS. The CSS contains documents ranging in length from half a page to several volumes. It includes some internal serial titles. It covers a huge variety of topics that interested Congress and the White House over a time span of nearly 200 years. The following are a few examples of these documents:

* In Favor of Reducing and Regulating the Duties on Teas (1828)

* Report from the Secretary of War in Compliance with a Resolution of the Senate, in Reference to the Defense of the Frontier of Maine (1838)

* Report of the Committee on Resolution of Legislature of Indiana on the Subject of the Wabash and Erie Canal Land Claim (1840)

* Resolutions of Legislature of California in Favor of the Overland Mail and Pony Express (1862)

* Petition of Citizens of the Des Moines Valley, Iowa, Praying Protection in their Rights and the Preservation to Them of Their Homes on the Odd-Numbered Sections of Land in Said Valley (1871)

* Resolution of Inquiry Relative to Analysis of Beer (1888)

* "Titanic" Disaster: Hearing before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce United States Senate (1912)

* Limiting Production of Opium to Amount Required for Medicinal and Scientific Purposes (1944)

* Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007 (2008)

Rodney A. Ross wrote that "the Serial Set is an invaluable source of information not only on Congress and the entire federal government, but on every conceivable subject for which the federal government has had an interest." (3) From recognition of the nation's famous citizens to petitions from "ordinary folks" (the 1871 homeowners from the Des Moines Valley, above), the CSS records items of historical, political, social, and economic interest for nearly two centuries of our country's history. From paper through microform to CD-ROM and now the Internet, these documents form an unparalleled look at our history from both macro and micro perspectives. They are a wealth of primary historical records that can excite researchers from the high school level onwards. For more information about the CSS as a publication, consult Morehead's Introduction to United States Government Information Sources. (4)

Discoverability and Access

Identifying individual documents of potential interest to a student, historian, or other researcher often proves daunting. The Congressional Serial Set, as its name suggests, is cataloged as a serial. It consists of thousands of volumes, many of which contain anywhere from dozens to several hundred individual documents.

There are a number of printed finding aids available to navigate this resource, but even before the digital age, researchers found these cumbersome to use. Ross remarked that "for a century and one-half the confusing format and poor quality of Serial Set indexes hindered scholars." (5) In 1885, the Government Printing Office (GPO) issued Poore's A Descriptive Catalogue of the Government Publications of the United States, September 5, 1774-March 4, 1881. (6) Poore's publication was followed by Tables of and Annotated Index to the Congressional Series of the United States Public Documents (1902). …

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