Government Documents

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This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.


Government documents are the official publications of Federal, state, and local governmental bodies. They are published in a wide variety of formats, including book, pamphlet, magazine, report monograph, microform, and electronic database.

Most Federal government agencies publish documents about the agency and its function. The National Archives and Records Service is no exception. An important reference source published by that agency is the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. This work describes the many types of records held by the National Archives and their use in genealogical research. It is well illustrated with samples of records. The National Archives also publishes numerous catalogs, describing reel by reel holdings of census, military, and other genealogical records held by the National Archives.

The National Archives has also published a three-volume set called Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. This important reference book introduces users to archival records of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Federal government. It covers all types of records printed, electronic, and audiovisual. Vols. 1 and 2 describe the nearly 1.7 million cubic feet of Federal records transferred to the National Archives as of 1 October 1994. This information is organized into more than four hundred chapters that describe the records of many agencies. The third volume contains an extensive index.

Most Federal government documents are printed by the Government Printing Office and distributed by the U.S. Superintendent of Documents. The best guide to Federal government documents is Introduction to United States Government Information Sources, by Joe Morehead and Mary Fetzer. This book gives a clear, concise explanation of how the Federal government publishes documents. It is arranged in an easy-to-read textbook format, and its many illustrations provide examples of governmental publications.

The U.S. Superintendent of Documents issues many catalogs that serve as bibliographies of government documents. The Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications is available in most large public libraries. Libraries rely on the Monthly Catalog for current information on government publications and use it as a finding aid for locating obscure government documents. Issued monthly in paperback format, the Monthly Catalog is also available on microfiche and through several online databases (BRS, DIALOG and ORBIT). Entries in the printed Monthly Catalog are arranged alphanumerically by Superintendent of Documents classification notation. The main entry section is followed by separate indexes for author, title, subject, series/reports, stock number, and title key word.

An examination of the June 1993 issue of the Monthly Catalog produced the following items of interest in the subject index: under United States History Revolution, 17751783 Sources is found The Life of a Revolutionary War soldier: Simon Fobes goes to war. (AE 1.102:R32), 93-12884); and under United States History Study and teaching is found The Behind-the-scenes tour of the National Archives. (AE 1.102:T 64/2), 93-12885.

Knowing the location of government documents is as important as knowing that a government document might be useful in a family search. Almost 1,400 public, academic, state, and law libraries serve as information links with the Federal government by maintaining collections of government publications. These collections are open to the public and are tailored to fit the needs of the local area. For a list of these depository libraries, write to:

Federal Depository Library Program
U.S. Government Printing Office
Stop: SM
Washington, DC 20402

Additionally, there are more than fifty regional depository libraries; each receives at least one copy of every Federal document printed. A list of these regional libraries is published in the Monthly Catalog and the United States Government Manual (described below).

Government documents are usually housed in separate collections within a depository library and are arranged and cataloged by document number. Repository libraries usually have trained government documents librarians who can assist researchers. One series of documents useful to genealogists is the annual U.S. Serial Set (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1817) (sometimes known as the Congressional Serial Set), an ongoing publication with more than fourteen thousand volumes. Begun in 1817, the U.S. Serial Set consists of congressional publications, such as House reports, Senate reports, House documents, Senate documents, Senate executive reports, and Senate treaty documents.

Many documents published in the U.S. Serial Set have great genealogical value. In them are the names of people who received pensions, patents, postal contracts, and many other types of government recognition. The set also includes the names of persons who made claims against the government for land and private relief. These volumes can generally be found in U.S. government depository libraries and in large public and university libraries.

Legislative and executive government documents dating from 1789 to 1823 were privately printed in a set of thirty-eight volumes known as the American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States(Washington, D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1832–61). The documents in these volumes are arranged in the following ten classes: (1) Foreign Relations, (2) Indian Affairs, (3) Finance, (4) Commerce and Navigation, (5) Military Affairs, (6) Naval Affairs, (7) Post-Office Department, (8) Public Lands, and (9) Claims.

Southern Historical Press published a nine-volume reprint set with the same title (Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1994). This set contains information from section 8, Public Lands, and section 9, Claims, of the official American State Papers.

A twelve-part index to the U.S. Serial Set covering 1789 through 1969 has been published by Congressional Information Services; it is called the CIS U.S. Serial Set Index (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Information Service, 1975-79). One section of this index includes the name of each individual requesting private relief or related actions from the government. For additional information on using the American State Papers and the CIS U.S. Serial Set Index, see "Genealogy Research in the U.S. Serial Set," by Jacquelyn Glavinick, Heritage Quest (33) (March-April 1991): 1416, and The U.S. Serial Set: Your Ancestors Could Be Lurking Among the Pages of These Volumes, Journal of Genealogy (January 1988): 1421.

Publications Reference File (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1977) is a bimonthly microfiche list of all publications available through the Superintendent of Documents. It lists between twenty-five thousand and thirty thousand titles available from Federal agencies. Most of these documents have been issued within the last five years. The Publications Reference File provides author, title, and subject access to government publications and availability, prices, and stock numbers. Many public libraries subscribe to this publication in microfiche format (GPO Sales Publications Reference File) or online through DIALOG (GPO Publications Reference File).

Genealogists can also locate government documents through twenty-four U.S. Government Bookstores that offer government documents for sale. They are open to the public and are located in the following cities: Birmingham, Alabama; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Denver; Pueblo, Colorado; Washington, D.C.; Jacksonville, Florida; Atlanta; Chicago; Laurel, Maryland; Boston; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; New York; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Dallas; Houston; Seattle; and Milwaukee. Complete lists of bookstores with addresses and telephone and fax numbers can be found in the Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications (described earlier), The United States Government Manual, and the National Five Digit ZIP Code and Post Office Directory (described below).

Many public libraries that are not depository libraries purchase selected government reference documents that offer opportunities for genealogical research. These include The United State Government Manual, National Five Digit ZIP Code and Post Office Directory, and Where to Write for Vital Records.

The United States Government Manual (Lanham, Md.: Bernan Press, annual) is the official handbook of the Federal government. Published annually, it provides information on agencies of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. A typical agency description includes a list of principle officials, a statement of the agency’s purpose and role in the Federal government, a brief history, a description of programs and activities, and a Sources of Information section. The section on the National Archives and Records Administration gives the address and telephone number for the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and for each of the National Archives’ thirteen regional archives. This manual also provides information about educational courses offered by the National Archives. The popular Introduction to Genealogy, a four-day course offered annually to introduce researchers to records stored in the National Archives, is mentioned.

The National Five Digit ZIP Code and Post Office Directory can be found in every post office nationwide and in most libraries. It not only assists in finding ZIP codes for addressing letters, but it also can provide the addresses for county courthouses and other public buildings. Also included is a list of discontinued post offices; order blanks for purchasing Government Printing Office publications; ZIP codes for installations of the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, and Coast Guard in the continental United States; and a U.S. naval fleet listing.

Another useful government publication is Where to Write for Vital Records: Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces, DHHS Publication no. (PHS) 87-1142 (Hyattsville, Md.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1993). This thirty-page booklet is available at all government bookstores. It is an inexpensive source for accessing the vital records of all states and U.S. territories. It provides addresses for state vital records offices, remarks about their holdings, and suggestions about where to write for additional records and information. The cost for copies of birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates is included. (The user should realize that such charges change often, however.) The booklet is updated every three years.

Sometimes state vital records offices require that requests for certificates be submitted on special forms. Blank application forms are published in the International Vital Records Handbook by Thomas J. Kemp.

State and local government agencies also publish documents of use to genealogists. These include official state manuals, state adjutant generals’ reports, and state library and archive holdings catalogs. Information about these types of documents is available from individual state libraries and archives. Their addresses can be found in several of the directories mentioned previously most notably in Bentley’s Genealogist’s Address Book.


Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records


Publication Information:

Introduction - By Kory L. Meyerink

Origin of InformationCategories of Research Sources and ToolsEvaluation of Printed SourcesDocumentation and CopyrightLearning What Printed Sources ExistPublishers and DistributorsRepositories of Printed SourcesEffective Use of Libraries and Archives

Chapter 1: General Reference - Martha L. Henderson

Unique Resources in Public LibrariesDewey Decimal Classification SystemReference SourcesEncyclopediasGeneral History SourcesSocial History SourcesAlmanacs, Chronologies, and Statistical SourcesUsing DirectoriesLocal DirectoriesPrinted Professional DirectoriesInstitutional DirectoriesDirectories of Groups and AssociationsSource GuidesGeneral Language DictionariesHistorical and Etymological DictionariesSlang DictionariesSubject DictionariesSurname DictionariesGovernment DocumentsUsing BibliographiesElectronic SourcesReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 1

Chapter 2: Instructional Materials - Sandra Hargreaves Luebking

Introduction to Instructional MattersHow-To Guides and Manuals for AdultsHow-to Guides and Manuals for Young PeopleGenealogy Technologies and Refinement of SkillsCourses and Programs of StudyPeriodical ArticlesIdentifying and Obtaining Instructional MaterialsEvaluating Instructional MaterialsSelecting Textbooks for Classroom UseThe Future of Instructional MaterialsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Introduction to Geographic ToolsIntroduction to Maps and GazettersMapping of a New NationRoutes to the WestCanals and WaterwaysRailroadsPolitical MapsNineteenth-Century MapsUSGS Topographic MapsOrdering Topographic Map Names and NumbersOrdering Topographic MapsDigital Topographic MapsOut-of-Print Topographic MapsFact Sheets and General Interest PublicationsOther Types of USGS MapsNineteenth-Century National GazetteersTwentieth-Century National GazetteersPostal Guides and Shipping GuidesMaps, Gazetteers, and the ComputerFinding Geographic ToolsUsing Geographic ToolsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 3

Chapter 4

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Chapter 5

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Chapter 6

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Chapter 7

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Chapter 8

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Chapter 9

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Chapter 10

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Chapter 11

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Chapter 12

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Chapter 13

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Chapter 14

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Chapter 15

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Chapter 16

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Chapter 17

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Chapter 18

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Chapter 19

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Chapter 20

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Appendix

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