Skip to Main Content

Read, Listen, Inform: Government Publications in Action (August 2018): GPO and Government Documents to FDLP (1895)

By Aimée C. Quinn

GPO and Government Documents to FDLP (1895)

A History of the Book in America, Volume 2, entitled An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790–1840, begins with a realization that in order for the new government to function and succeed, an informed citizenry and free press were crucial. The notion of free assembly and public debate naturally lead to these outcomes. For these reasons, Congress created the Government Printing Office in 1860 to centralize executive branch and legislative branch printing. A good examination of GPO’s early days may be found in Kling’s The Government Printing Office, which provides a good look at how the GPO developed over the course of that century. Kling was the assistant to the public printer when he wrote this monograph, so he had some inside knowledge and access to the GPO’s historical material. During those early years it was a struggle to set the standards for government printing including the Congressional Globe (what we know today as the Congressional Record) as well as the House and Senate Journals, which are the only documents mandated to be printed by the Constitution. Today, the GPO has a museum in its building as well as on its website showing some of the machinery and equipment used throughout its 158-year history.

The third volume of the series, The Industrial Book, 1840–1880, explains how government printing changed, especially when the Census Bureau began its publication about illiteracy and education. This discussion is confirmed by a provision in a Senate report directing the Census Bureau to include a question asking “the number of white persons of 20 years of age who could not read and write.”  This new level of detailed reports coupled with expansion into new territories led to a new form of publication. Suddenly, GPO was no longer primarily publishing pamphlets and laws, but all kinds of reports, circulars, bulletins, annual reports, and investigations, and geologic, ethnographic, and scientific studies.

This theme is carried into Volume 4, Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880–1940, which studies the expansion of American publishing overall, including foreign publishers operating in America. Learned societies and libraries began collecting government publications, thus the GPO started mailing out their materials. As demand grew, the GPO realized it needed a more centralized way to manage distribution, and in 1895 “An Act Providing for the Public Printing and Binding and the Distribution of Public Documents” was passed into law. This established the Office of the Superintendent of Documents to collect and distribute materials to individuals, libraries, state offices, and learned societies. This office would establish guidelines, rules, and eventually the Federal Depository Library Program.

In Volume 4 of the series, Dr. Charles A. Seavey with Caroline F. Sloat contributed the chapter “The Government as Publisher,” which explains that while the law centralizes printing, federal publication is still decentralized due to the very structure of the executive branch. During the early parts of the twentieth century, government printing flourished. The GPO became the largest printer in the world. As the United States grew in influence and might around the globe, so too did its publication record. As scientists developed new methods and new areas of research sponsored by the government, new publication series arose. During the two World Wars, libraries received materials from their Congressmen, and in 1962 printing laws were revised for the first time since 1895. When this new legislation passed, GPO administered to 594 federal depository libraries and more than 700 libraries.

The final volume in A History of the Book in America discusses American publication in terms of the commercial publishing world. The need for a revision of the 1895 law arose, and so Congress enacted the “Depository Library Act of 1962,” which created the modern FDLP. This system allows for each Congressional district to have a depository library, along with land grant institutions, and for each state to have up to two “comprehensive” regional depository libraries. Further amendments allowed law libraries to be designated and, later, tribal libraries, among other special library designations. For an overview of this fascinating thirty years of the twentieth century, Bernard M. Fry and Peter Hernon, two outstanding researchers on government printing, edited a 1981 monograph showcasing some of the best research related to government publication, Government Publications: Key Papers. This volume combines theory and practice in the field, and is a timeless work showing a fundamental need for this area of librarianship.