Government Publications

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GOVERNMENT PUBLICATIONS. The various divisions of the federal government produce a vast collection of documents on an enormous range of subjects. In addition to common publications such as the federal budget and presidential papers, government departments write reports about everything from beekeeping and naval history to crime trends and national health disasters. Many of these documents are available to the public either directly through the Government Printing Office (GPO) or in one of more than 1,000 federal depository libraries across the country. In 2001 GPO distributed tens of millions of copies of about 15,000 different government publications. Nevertheless, most Americans underuse these documents because they tend to be hard to find. Libraries give them a separate classification system and shelve them in their own section, and very few bookstores sell them.

The U.S. Constitution mandates the printing of a single government publication, the journals of House and Senate proceedings. Congress's printing needs increased quickly, but it continued to hire private printers on a contract basis for the first half of the nineteenth century. Private firms tended to produce sloppy work and to over-charge for it, and Congress was rarely satisfied with its makeshift printing arrangements. In 1795, for example, Congress hired a printer to produce a multivolume set of federal statutes, but he finished less than half of it. Twenty years later, another printer was hired and failed to do the same job, which was not completed until 1845, when the contract finally went to a Boston firm. Congressional business could be stalled for days while members waited for crucial documents.

Congress experimented with various solutions to its printing problem. The first proposal for a formal government body in charge of printing appeared in 1819, but both houses hired full-time private printers instead. The poor service persisted, however, and Congress restored competitive bidding on a per-job basis in 1846 and created a Joint Committee on Printing to oversee the process. But even after a superintendent of public printing was appointed in 1852, service failed to improve. In 1860, after two investigations, Congress finally created the Government Printing Office, which bought a large plant and hired a staff of 350.

At first, GPO's major responsibility was to the members of Congress, who needed the quick and accurate turnaround of key documents to conduct their business. The office's mission changed radically, however, with the passage of the Printing Act of 1895. GPO would continue to address the government's printing needs, but it would also be responsible for disseminating information to the public. Congress appointed a superintendent of public documents, who was responsible for compiling detailed indexes, selling documents, and sending them to libraries. GPO's structure and objectives have remained largely the same since then. Its formal mission is to "inform the Nation," and the superintendent still administers the distribution of publications and puts together a comprehensive list of available documents, the Monthly Catalogue of United States Government Publications.

Well before GPO adopted its public service function, however, the government had been interested in making sure documents were available to people. The Federal Depository Library System was created in 1813, when Congress required the secretary of state to send a copy of the House and Senate journals to every university, college, and historical society in every state. But as the government generated more material, such a comprehensive provision proved unworkable. In 1859, senators and representatives selected a limited number of libraries from their states and districts to participate in the system, and by 1922 the libraries were asked to request the specific classes of publications in which they were most interested. In 2001 there were about 1,300 federal depository libraries.

Government documents are also available to the public through GPO's Monthly Catalogue, through GPO's extensive Web site (GPO Access), and at eighteen GPO bookstores in big cities throughout the country. GPO Access was established in 1994 by an act of Congress, and by 2001 it included 225,000 free government publications, and visitors were downloading an average of 30 million per month. GPO also pioneered the use of microfilm and CD-ROM to cope with a deluge of paper, but it still produces more than 100,000 tons of paper documents a year.

Though the modern GPO belongs to the legislative branch of government, it runs mostly like a business. It employs a unionized staff of about 3,000, and the president appoints its chief executive officer, known officially as the public printer. The office gets two appropriations, one for congressional printing and another for legally required distributions. Otherwise, it pays for itself. About 130 federal government departments hire GPO for their printing needs, including passports and census and tax forms. In 2001, GPO revenue exceeded $700 million.

Government documents are striking in their volume and variety. In 2001, GPO divided its publications into 131 categories, including wildlife (116 titles), arms control (127), aging (39), earth science (160), Civil War (192), radiation (48), music (221), and voting and elections (245). Since 1873, GPO has printed the Congressional Record, which contains the verbatim transcript of all business conducted on the floors of both houses. Every morning, it sends out 9,000 copies of the previous day's debates. In 1935 the office started printing the Federal Register, which collects a tangle of executive rules and regulations. Other notable publications include: U.S. Supreme Court decisions, various censuses, the Congressional Directory, numerous annual reports, government periodicals, and the Statistical Abstract of the United States. In the late 1990s, GPO's two most important documents were the Starr Report and several rulings in the Microsoft antitrust case.


Kling, Robert E. The Government Printing Office. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Relyea, Harold. Title 44, United States Code—Public Printing and Documents: A Brief Historical Overview. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, 1979.

Schmeckebier, Laurence Frederick, and Roy B. Eastin. Government Publications and Their Use. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1969.

Smith, Culver H. The Press, Politics, and Patronage: The American Government's Use of Newspapers, 1789–1875. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977.


See alsoCensus, U.S. Bureau of the ; Libraries .

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Government Publications