16 Dissemination, Collection Development, and Bibliographic Control

Gwen Sinclair

Learning Objectives

  • Become aware of historical distribution systems for government documents
  • Become familiar with collection development approaches and acquisitions methods for government publications
  • Develop awareness of the issues surrounding fugitive documents
  • Learn about metadata creation and classification for government documents

Dissemination of U.S. Government Publications

This section will discuss the various methods used to disseminate federal publications. Dissemination of state and local publications is discussed in Chapter 10, and IGO publications are discussed in Chapter 15.

During colonial times and the first century of the existence of the U.S., most government documents were privately published by printers like Benjamin Franklin or Blair and Rives and were available for purchase by libraries and individuals. Not many libraries made an effort to acquire government publications until after the end of the colonial period.[1]

Following the establishment of the U.S. government, Congress controlled the printing of government publications, contracted with private publishers, and legislatively authorized the printing and distribution of individual titles or series. Congressional documents were distributed to Executive Branch agencies, courts, and state governments. During the first few sessions of Congress, the congressional journals and statutes were not distributed to libraries, although some libraries acquired copies from members of Congress.[2]

In 1813, Congress made significant changes in how its publications were organized and issued. It also designated additional categories of publications, such as congressional documents and reports, to be distributed to states and federal offices, historical societies, and universities and colleges. Thus, 1813 is usually recognized as the year in which the official distribution of federal government publications to libraries began. The law also authorized the printing of an additional 200 copies of documents for distribution outside the federal government.[3]

In the 1850s, public laws expanded the number of libraries in the depository system by enabling the designation of one depository library in each congressional district by a state’s representatives in Congress, and two depositories could be designated by the senators in each state.[4]

By 1860, Congress had experienced many difficulties with the private printing arrangements used in the preceding decades. In order to maintain better control over the quality and price of government printing, it established the Government Printing Office (GPO), which proceeded to purchase a printing plant for its use. However, GPO did not handle all of the printing for all branches of the government. An 1874 law defined public documents (government publications) as “publications printed by order of Congress, or either House thereof.” This definition excluded some types of publications such as Supreme Court reports, which continued to be privately published and sold until 1922.[5]

In 1895, the modern Federal Depository Library Program was established. The list of libraries eligible to be depositories was enlarged to include state and territorial libraries, libraries of land grant colleges, and certain specified institutions. Until 1922, these depository libraries received all documents distributed by GPO, whether they were wanted or not. Furthermore, depositories were required to retain all documents they received.[6] In 1923, the item selection process was introduced, allowing libraries to limit their selections and tailor them to the needs of their patrons.

In 1962, the number of depository libraries was again increased when the Depository Library Act of 1962 allowed for two depositories in each congressional district and more executive branch agency libraries became eligible to serve as depositories. The law also established the concept of regional depository libraries, which would receive 100% of the documents distributed by GPO, and would permit the discarding of documents by the other depositories in the state (known as selective depositories). Furthermore, the law expanded the scope of the depository program by including documents printed in agency printing plants (formerly, only documents printed at GPO were included). The law had the effect of dramatically increasing the number of federal depository libraries because libraries were no longer required to permanently retain everything they received, and it also substantially increased the number of publications distributed.[7] As a result, many depository libraries’ collections began in the 1960s and the number of depositories with significant collections of documents published prior to the 1960s is much smaller.

Beginning in the 1970s, GPO began to produce microfiche of many documents in order to distribute them to libraries without having to print and mail hundreds or thousands of copies. In 1993, the GPO Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act again expanded the definition of documents considered to be within the scope of the depository program by including electronic publications. However, these electronic publications were not “deposited” any longer; libraries could simply provide access to them through links in their catalog records or by other means.

In 2002, the University of Arizona Library initiated a pilot project to transition to being a virtual depository. Since that time, GPO has permitted the establishment of additional virtual depositories that provide access to electronic government information but are not required to maintain physical collections of documents. Selective depository libraries that are not virtual depositories are also permitted to select the electronic version of most publications in lieu of receiving print or microfiche. As a result, many libraries have chosen to receive far fewer titles in print and have begun to drastically downsize their print collections.

Other Distribution Systems for Federal Publications

In addition to receiving documents directly from government agencies by subscription, some libraries have participated in the following distribution systems operated by specific agencies.

Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)

The AEC operated a depository system for unclassified AEC reports and translations of foreign reports related to atomic energy from 1946 to 1974. After 1965, documents were issued on microcards or microfiche. Documents were indexed in Nuclear Science Abstracts and Abstracts of Declassified Documents and are now indexed, with some full text, in OSTI.gov.[8]


Cover of Comparison of Calder Hall and PWR reactor types
Figure 1. American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation. (1957). Comparison of Calder Hall and PWR reactor types. Washington, D.C.: Atomic Energy Commission.


In the 1950s, the Census Bureau designated 181 special depositories that were not federal depository libraries to receive its reports. Depositories were chosen based on a public library’s population served, the enrollment in a college or university, or distance from a federal depository library. As the number of federal depository libraries increased, the need for these special census depositories decreased.[9]

Housing and Urban Development Department Depository Library System aka HUD 701 Planning Depositories

Public Law 83-560 established the Comprehensive Planning Assistance Program in 1954. The HUD system of depository libraries was then established to permit participating libraries to receive “701” planning reports. There were three types of HUD depositories: Planning Depositories, State Depositories, and Planning School Depositories. In 1977, there were over 100 HUD depositories in the U.S.[10]

Documents Expediting Project (DocEx)

DocEx began in 1946 as a joint project between the Library of Congress and a group of library associations to handle the distribution of publications, primarily those issued by wartime agencies, that were not printed or distributed by GPO. After the World War II-era publications had all been distributed, DocEx concentrated on other categories of publications, most notably congressional committee prints and CIA publications. DocEx also arranged for member libraries to be placed on federal agencies’ mailing lists. The project ended in 2004 due to the increasing online availability of government publications.[11]

Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDL)

The PTDL system was established in 1977 to give depository libraries free access to current and backfile patent publications that ordinarily cost thousands of dollars, including examiners’ search tools. Now called Patent and Trademark Resource Centers, these libraries provide reference assistance and training on patent and trademark searching.

Army Map Service (AMS)

To distribute maps created by AMS or captured by Allied forces during World War II, in 1945 AMS developed a depository system modeled on the FDLP. AMS maps formed the foundation of many university libraries’ map collections, and some are still depositories for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, successor to AMS.[12] Since not all libraries received identical sets of maps through the program, there are still groups of maps that have never been cataloged, particularly the captured maps and manuscript maps.

Collection Development

Chances are that most librarians will never work as depository librarians, but as subject selectors they may be tasked with selecting databases, reference titles, or other works to supplement what is freely available online. Vendors constantly develop new products; buy, sell, or merge product lines; or spin off individual product components. It can be difficult for librarians to keep up, so it is helpful to sign up for vendor mailing lists to maintain awareness of new products or databases. Below is a list of the principal publishers of electronic and print resources for government information. Unless otherwise noted, all resources may be acquired through subscription, standing orders, or firm orders. For the most part, the products listed are mainly of interest to larger academic or law libraries, although other libraries may purchase some of their products.

ProQuest has absorbed several important groups of print and microform publications that were originally issued by Congressional Information Service, Inc., UMI (University Microforms, Inc.), and other publishers. Its products cover congressional reports, documents, hearings, regulations, and Congressional Record, and the statistical indexes discussed in Chapter 6. ProQuest Congressional Collections, Executive Branch Documents, Digital National Security Archive, UK Parliamentary Papers, ProQuest Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations, 1789-2014, ProQuest Statistical Insight, and ProQuest Statistical Abstracts are some of its most important electronic resources for government information. PAIS (Public Affairs Information Service) Index, one of the oldest commercial indexing and abstracting services, is also available on the ProQuest platform. PAIS contains selective coverage of federal, state, and international government publications related to public affairs. ProQuest also publishes reference works and microfiche sets of U.S., state, and international government publications.

CQ Roll Call, now part of FiscalNote, offers a suite of legislative tracking and analysis tools at the state and local level. It was formed through the merger of two separate publishers that focused on legislative tracking, CQ (Congressional Quarterly) and Roll Call. CQ Roll Call was previously owned by Economist Group.

SAGE is currently the publisher of CQ Press Library, an electronic library of reference works about American politics and government that includes titles formerly published by Congressional Quarterly: CQ Researcher, CQ Almanac, government directories, and other reference sources. Titles can be purchased separately and are also available in print. Data-Planet, also owned by SAGE, is one of the most important resources for federal and state data.

William S. Hein & Co., Inc. is primarily a legal publisher, but its electronic resource HeinOnline includes the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications and many current and historical federal, state, and international government publications. In addition, Hein publishes several legal reference works available in electronic or print format. Hein is also one of the few remaining publishers of government documents in microform, and it publishes reprint editions of federal titles like agency administrative law decisions.

LLMC Digital began life as Law Library Microform Consortium, an organization dedicated to creating microfiche editions of federal, state, and international legal works. Law libraries were running out of space and microforms were in great demand to reduce the shelf space required for voluminous legal titles. LLMC later abandoned microfiche in favor of digitizing these works. Unlike the other vendors listed here, LLMC is a non-profit that was founded by the law libraries at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and Wayne State University in Detroit.

Readex was initially a microprint publisher that sold microprint editions of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set and non-depository federal documents. Later, Readex developed an electronic version of the Serial Set and introduced additional electronic titles: Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Reports, 1974-1996 and Territorial Papers of the United States, 1764-1953. Readex also publishes AccessUN, the most important subscription database for United Nations official documents and publications, and the accompanying microfiche collection.

The Paratext product U.S. Public Documents Masterfile provides a single search interface for the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications and other historical finding aids for U.S. government documents.

LexisNexis is a well-known legal and news publisher whose products are usually found in law libraries. The database Nexis Uni (formerly LexisNexis Academic) is designed for academic libraries and includes court decisions, regulations, and state and local laws.

MarciveWeb DOCS is Marcive, Inc.’s version of the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP). It provides an enhanced search interface in contrast to GPO’s CGP search options. Additional Marcive products are discussed below in the section on bibliographic control.

AGRICOLA, freely available through the National Agricultural Library and also through other subscription platforms, contains selective indexing of federal, state, and international government publications related to agriculture, including patents and technical reports.

National Technical Reports Library is a free database produced by the National Technical Information Service (NTIS, discussed in Chapter 9). It provides indexing and full text of technical report literature produced by federal agencies. NTIS also publishes the subscription-based NTIS Bibliographic Database and the limited-access Death Master File (DMF) from the Social Security Administration (SSA).

EBSCO offers many specialized databases for academic and public libraries, including GeoRef, which covers government sources in the geosciences; NTIS Bibliographic Database, mentioned above; Global Patents Reference Center, which covers patents from most countries; and selected HeinOnline resources, including Congressional Record, Federal Register, and world constitutions.

ERIC (Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse) is the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) library of literature related to education. In addition to journal articles, it covers , conference papers, and theses and dissertations. It is freely available from USDOE and through several commercial database providers, including EBSCO. Many libraries have collections of ERIC documents on microfiche. Most of the documents covered by the microfiche have been scanned and are now available online.

EastView Information Services publishes the World News Connection Archive, which covers FBIS documents from 1995-2013. These documents were formerly released on CD-ROMs and later became a subscription database—yet another example of a title that was once a free government publication but is now commercially published.

Rowman & Littlefield, under its Bernan imprint, publishes reprints of federal government publications and reference books about government information. Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis, is another important publisher of reference books.

The subscription databases available for U.S., state, and international government information are, for the most part, very expensive. Whereas libraries used to be able to purchase books or microform sets piecemeal, vendors typically sell their electronic products as packages using an all-or-nothing approach. In other words, a library must buy the entire package, even though it may want only a portion of the content. For example, in Readex’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set product, there are only two modules: 1810-1980 and 1980-1994. If a library only wanted content from 1950-present, it would be forced to purchase both modules and would still have to pay for the pre-1950 content. It is understandable that companies take this approach in order to recoup the enormous investment required to develop the products, but the high price tags mean that many libraries simply don’t subscribe. Some databases contain data or publications that are available online for free, e.g. ProQuest Statistical Abstract of the United States and Data-Planet. The pricing covers not only the content, but also the search interface, technical support, training materials, and administrative and marketing costs.

Vendor literature is sometimes vague about the origins or the extent of the content being sold. Furthermore, salespeople may lack in-depth product knowledge or may emphasize the good qualities of a product while remaining silent about its limitations. Librarians need to exhibit persistence in questioning vendors about their products to ensure that they are a good value for the library. Request a trial of a database and test it thoroughly before making a purchase decision. Reviews of electronic resources or reference books can be helpful, but sometimes they are too brief. Asking colleagues who have already purchased a product is a common way to assess print or electronic resources before you buy.

You may wonder why vendors still publish microforms. In part, it is because the content of the microform sets may not have been digitized yet. Moreover, there is still a market for microforms as a backup for electronic resources. The microfiche can still be used if the institution decides to cancel its subscription to an electronic resource due to budgetary constraints. Finally, microforms are less expensive than their electronic counterparts, which are usually priced for multiple simultaneous users.

Acquisition of Government Documents

For federal depository librarians, developing the collection involves two streams: selecting and deselecting depository items through the FDLP item selection process, described on the pages Depository Collection and Development and Weeding a Depository Collection, and acquiring reference titles and non-depository materials to supplement the depository collection. Many libraries use Documents Data Miner 2 (DDM2), maintained by Wichita State University, in addition to the FDLP’s collection tools (described on the page Amending Your Library’s Selection Profile) because it provides a single interface to perform a number of tasks such as listing all of the items selected or searching shipping lists. It is currently the trend for libraries to reduce their physical holdings by deleting print titles from their selection profiles. A common strategy used to simplify this process is to copy another library’s item selection profile, then modify it to suit the library’s collection development policy.

Aside from acquisitions through depository systems and purchases, gifts and exchange are important acquisition sources for government publications. Other sources of gifts are libraries or other organizations that are downsizing or weeding duplicates. Librarians can use formal needs and offers database like GPO’s eXchange or ASERL’s Documents Disposition Database for collection building, or they may rely on informal networks between individual librarians.


Screen shot of https://exchange.fdlp.gov
Figure 2. Screen shot of FDLP eXchange showing a matched need.

Of course, it is possible to purchase federal documents from GPO or from a book jobber, but they don’t sell everything that’s available. Often, you must contact an agency directly, especially in the case of maps. You can ask to be placed on an agency’s mailing list or use its news feed to be notified of print or online publications that you might want to acquire or link to. For example, notifications of statistical reports about agricultural commodities are available from the USDA, and state data centers send alerts announcing new releases of census data.

Librarians may also request documents through interlibrary loan in order to create reproductions or scans for the collection, especially in the case of fugitive documents (discussed below). Similarly, libraries may purchase copies of archival material of local interest from the National Archives or other repositories.

Finally, there is the good old method of trolling for government documents when you are out and about. Pick up national park brochures when you visit national parks, because they are not always distributed through the FDLP. Community events often feature local government agencies that are handing out booklets, brochures, posters, or other publications.

Collecting and Preserving Born Digital Information

Some librarians have argued that libraries should collect and store born-digital content rather than relying on the issuing agency or GPO to perform this function. The result would be a distributed collection of documents that would be a virtual equivalent to the distributed print collections of the FDLP. The LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) program is a platform that enables libraries to store and preserve digital content. Some libraries use Archive-It or in-house systems to store documents on a local or remote server. The digital archiving movement for government documents is still gaining momentum, so it is hard to say how prevalent the practice will be going forward.

It is especially important to resolve the issues created by the impermanence of websites. In the age of printed documents, a presidential administration could not easily wipe out the former administration’s publications. Today, whenever a new president takes office, agencies review their websites and often delete or hide (intentionally or not) pages that do not conform to the new administration’s views. This occurs under each new president, but is perhaps better documented with the Trump administration. The New York Times reported that the Trump administration has made a concerted effort to remove references to climate change on agency websites.[13]

Both government and community efforts have developed recently to archive federal websites. The National Archives conducts an end-of-term crawl of federal agency websites at the conclusion of each session of Congress. At the end of President Obama’s term, a collaborative project by the The Library of Congress, California Digital Library, University of North Texas Libraries, Internet Archive, George Washington University Libraries, Stanford University Libraries, and the U.S. Government Publishing Office was undertaken to preserve, to the extent possible, the websites of federal agencies.[14] The archived web pages reside on the End of Term Web Archive.

GPO has experimented with to acquire federal agency documents. In 2006, GPO undertook a pilot project to crawl the Environmental Protection Agency’s website to harvest documents. Two separate contractors were assigned to perform the work. The fact that one contractor harvested 83,229 documents while the other harvested 239,478 publications gives an indication of the difficulties surrounding web crawling as a means of acquiring agency content. First, what is the definition of a document? Websites frequently break documents into smaller PDFs or separate html pages to reduce download times. Is each of those components a document, or do they collectively constitute a document? Second, an enormous amount of human intervention was required to review the documents to determine whether they had already been captured through another process, whether they were within scope of the FDLP, and to aggregate separate pieces of a publication. Third, it is not enough to crawl “surface” pages of a website. To be effective, a crawl must reach into individual databases or repositories that hold content. Thus, the search parameters must be customized to reach these deeper portions of each agency’s websites.[15] The FDLP currently archives selected websites and maintains the files in the Federal Depository Library Program Web Archive.

However, it is not enough to simply harvest websites. Consideration must also be given to the long-term preservation of born-digital content. The PEGI (Preservation of Electronic Government Information) Project seeks to understand the scope of preserving born-digital government information and make recommendations for how to handle its long-term preservation. PEGI conducted an environmental scan and has facilitated meetings to develop a national agenda to preserve digital government information.

Fugitive Documents

The term refers to documents that are within the scope of the FDLP but are not acquired or distributed by GPO and are therefore not included in the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP). It has been estimated that as much as fifty percent or more of the output of federal agencies has been fugitive at various points in time. How can this happen? Bower identified several factors:

  • Agencies reproduce documents in-house or publish them online, so they do not go to GPO for printing and distribution.
  • GPO erroneously determines that a publication is not in scope of the FDLP.
  • GPO lacks staff to identify and collect fugitives and relies on crowdsourcing for this task.
  • Agencies make arrangements with commercial publishers to print and distribute certain publications.[16]

Librarians have used a variety of methods to identify and acquire these fugitive publications and have strongly advocated for measures that would reduce the number of fugitives. For instance, librarians have maintained contact with agencies to acquire fugitives and have committed to reviewing certain agencies’ websites to identify fugitives. There is a formal system for reporting fugitive federal publications to GPO through its AskGPO customer service interface. GPO aims to have a comprehensive catalog of government publications, whether they were distributed by GPO or not, so GPO welcomes notifications of current and legacy fugitive documents. Once notified, GPO will catalog the publication and add a record for it to the CGP.

States that have depository systems often do not have the authority to require state agencies or counties to send copies of their publications (or notifications of electronic publications) to the depository. Therefore, fugitive publications are an issue not only with federal documents but also for libraries that collect state and local documents. At the international, state, and local level, there are no formal systems for reporting fugitive documents, so it’s up to the individual library to acquire or archive government information that might be considered fugitive. An example is environmental impact statements. While some states like Hawaiʻi have libraries that provide access to all of the EISs submitted to the state, other states do not have a central repository for these planning documents.

Bibliographic Control

Cataloging – U.S. Government Publications

Initially, the U.S. government did not have a single method of cataloging or indexing its official publications. Anyone wishing to research a law or review the Annual Report of the Surgeon General of the United States Navy would need to consult the House or Senate journal or various catalogs and indexes that covered portions of the output of the government.

Finally, in 1885, Benjamin Perley Poore, who was the Clerk of the Senate Committee on Printing, compiled a catalog of U.S. government publications that covered 1774 to 1881 and encompassed over 63,000 books, pamphlets, and other documents.[17] To compile the list, Poore and his assistants scoured the collections of the Library of Congress, the House and Senate, the executive branch agencies, and even the Boston Public Library and private collections. Poore noted that because the government used various printers, there was sometimes more than one version of a document.

John Ames, the Superintendent of Documents, continued Poore’s work in his Comprehensive Index to the Publications of the United States Government 1881-1893.[18] It wasn’t until the publication of the Checklist of United States Public Documents, 1789-1909 (commonly known as the 1909 Checklist) that a truly comprehensive listing of U.S. government publications was available.[19]

The Printing Act of 1895 mandated the ongoing publication of a comprehensive index of government documents. The resulting publication, Document Catalog, was published annually from 1893 to 1940. According to Morehead, “The Document Catalog is a splendid source, the most accurate and the most comprehensive official bibliography for the period 1893-1940.”[20] The reader may be surprised to hear this, since the Monthly Catalog of Government Publications began publication in 1895. In its initial incarnation, though, the Monthly Catalog was simply a list of public documents in print and did not include the author, subject, and title access available in Document Catalog. When the Document Catalog ceased publication, the Monthly Catalog was required to expand and improve its coverage. It included entries not only for documents distributed through the FDLP (marked with a black dot), but also for documents that were not distributed.

The print Monthly Catalog ceased publication in 2004 and now the catalog is only available online as the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP). In 1976, GPO began uploading its cataloging records to OCLC (WorldCat), the international cooperative cataloging database. Thus, when the online version of CGP was initially introduced, it only covered documents that had been cataloged in July 1976 or later. However, GPO has been adding records from its card-based shelflist, and now the CGP contains records for a great many pre-1976 documents (Figure 1). In addition, GPO plans to create full bibliographic records for all of the documents listed in the pre-1976 Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications.



Explosive decompression … United Airlines Flight 811 … February 24, 1989.

Publisher Info.

[Washington, D.C., 1992].

SuDoc Number

imageTD 1.112:92/02


1 v.

General Note

Aircraft Accident Report.

5059 C.


Subject – LC

imageAircraft accidents — Hawaii — Honolulu.

imageMetal doors — Accidents.

imageDecompression (Physiology)

Added Entry

imageUnited States. National Transportation Safety Board.

Figure 3. Example of a record from the Historic Shelflist Project

The Library of Congress has always collected and cataloged federal government publications. However, its collection is far from comprehensive, so the Library of Congress online catalog cannot be considered a comprehensive search tool for federal documents.

HathiTrust, a collaborative effort between many large research libraries, aims to build a comprehensive online collection of federal government documents distributed through GPO. As part of this mission, it has created the HathiTrust United States Government Documents Registry. In so doing, HathiTrust hopes to compile a comprehensive list of all of the publications ever distributed through the FDLP.[21]

When libraries began to adopt automated catalog systems, government documents were not usually included in retrospective conversion projects to convert card catalog records to machine-readable (MARC) records. As a result, many depository libraries, especially those with large depository collections, only have part of their holdings in the online catalog. Some libraries still selectively catalog documents and rely on spreadsheets, databases, or even shelflist cards to record their holdings. Therefore, it is extremely important for librarians who work with government documents to remember that the library’s holdings may not all be listed in the online catalog.


Figure 4. Example of a serial check-in card.

Currently, about 95 percent of federal government documents have some kind of record in OCLC, whether contributed by GPO, the Library of Congress, or other member libraries. However, the existence of OCLC records for congressional and fugitive publications varies by agency and date. Many libraries have undertaken cataloging projects for selected agencies, which filled in many of the gaps and made WorldCat a preferred catalog for federal documents. In addition, agencies such as the Defense Technical Information Center have contributed records for digitized documents. In spite of the increasing representation of government documents in WorldCat, librarians still post notices to the GOVDOC-L listserv asking if anyone has a copy of a particular document. This is necessary because a significant number of libraries have not added their holdings of pre-1976 documents to OCLC, at least not at the individual title level.

Now that 97 percent of current federal government publications are available online, many libraries provide access to them through their online catalogs and have ceased receiving printed copies of most documents. “Virtual” depositories don’t receive tangible publications at all and merely maintain records for selected electronic documents in their online catalogs. GPO provides reports that show how many times online government publications were accessed through the library’s website, online catalog, or discovery layer, and libraries can also retrieve lists of the documents viewed by their patrons.

Metadata Creation

What is it about government documents that strikes fear in the hearts of catalogers? In truth, there is nothing so terribly different about metadata creation for government publications. It is undeniable that some information is more difficult to find on government documents. For example, the corporate author, date of publication, or even the title may be missing. With a little sleuthing, though, a cataloger can fill in the blanks and produce a record that will pass muster. Frequently, the title on the spine, cover, and title page do not match. Some government publications are known by popular names such as Plum Book or CONUS. All of these title peculiarities can be accounted for in the bibliographic record.

It is also true that serials present a number of challenges for the cataloger. They may appear as issues within a numbered series, making it difficult to all of the issues. Title and agency changes necessitate the creation of new records. Frequencies change from monthly to quarterly to bimonthly. Libraries may not have enough issues of a serial to discern a publication pattern. Serials start, stop, and start again with different issue numbering. Rather than pulling our hair out, we can take a deep breath and apply descriptive cataloging rules to account for all of these situations.

To provide resources for librarians who catalog government publications, the Cataloging Committee of ALA’s Government Documents Roundtable (GODORT) maintains two toolkits for catalogers, one for federal documents, and the other for international documents. A toolkit for state documents is being prepared.

GPO is the cataloger of record for federal government documents and contributes its records to OCLC. For depository libraries, GPO provides valuable cataloging services. They will catalog federal government publications on demand. Depository librarians can submit requests to GPO through its AskGPO interface to catalog online documents, fugitive documents, and documents that were distributed through the FDLP but somehow were never cataloged by GPO. Catalog records are made available in CGP and OCLC and are available to everyone. GPO records can also be acquired through GitHub, a computer source code sharing site, and through the Cataloging Records Distribution Program (CRDP), available to federal depository libraries. In addition, libraries can purchase GPO cataloging records through a vendor like Marcive or OCLC. Additional sources of cataloging records are listed on the GODORT Cataloging Committee’s federal toolkit. Table 1 lists MARC fields typically used in records for government documents.

Table 1. MARC Tags Commonly Used in Cataloging Government Documents

MARC tag number


Fixed field (008) position 28

Government publication type


GPO item number

086, 098 or 099

Government documents call number


Technical report number


General note: Shipping list number


Restrictions on access note

Indexing of Federal Documents

Until the early 2000s, most depository libraries relied upon the Monthly Catalog in its print and online versions to provide subject, author, and title access to FDLP publications. Many libraries also purchased supplementary indexes such as CIS Index for congressional publications or subscribed to commercially published electronic versions of the Monthly Catalog from Marcive or Paratext (see above). Other indexes used for government technical reports included Scientific and Technical Aerospace Reports (STAR) for NASA reports and Government Reports Annual Index for reports available from the National Technical Information Service. These formerly printed indexes are now available as online databases with links to PDF documents. Note, however, that many categories of government publications have not been indexed, or indexes may only be available within the agency that produced the documents.

Classification of U.S. Government Publications

In this section, we are referring to classification as a means of organizing and arranging documents. Classification of sensitive or secret documents is discussed in Chapter 17.

Prior to 1895, only congressional publications used a classification system. Senate and House reports and documents were, and still are, issued with document numbers and are bound into consecutively numbered volumes in what is known as the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. Executive branch documents were simply listed by title and cross-referenced with the personal author’s name, if there was one.

In 1895, Adelaide Hasse brought to GPO a scheme she had devised for classifying federal documents at the Los Angeles Public Library. Superintendent of Documents William Leander Post expanded upon her scheme and the Superintendent of Documents, or SuDocs, classification system was born. The SuDocs system is based on provenance. In other words, documents are arranged by the agency or sub-agency that issued them, then by the type of document. To a large extent, SuDocs is mnemonic (A is for Agriculture, C is for Commerce, D is for Defense), but X and Y are used for Congressional publications.[22] Although the system makes it easy for non-librarians to quickly classify documents, it presents a dilemma when it comes to shelving documents. Should documents be kept in with the agency under which they were initially issued, or should they be moved when the classification changes?

A classic example of how an agency’s classification can change multiple times due to reorganizations is the Coast Guard (Table 2). These changes also demonstrate how an agency’s functions may change over time. When the Coast Guard was part of the Department of the Treasury, it was mainly involved with lifesaving, maintaining guides to navigation, and customs enforcement. During World Wars I and II, it became part of the Navy when its harbor security functions gained greater importance. In 1966, when the Department of Transportation was created, the Coast Guard’s role in safeguarding shipping caused it to be placed there. Finally, the security functions of the Coast Guard were deemed a better fit in the Department of Homeland Security when that agency came into existence in 2003.

Table 2. SuDocs Number Changes in Coast Guard Publications



SuDocs Stem



T 24



T 47



N 24



T 47



N 24



T 47



TD 5


Homeland Security

HS 7

The SuDocs system is still used today and GPO devises a SuDocs number for all of the publications it distributes, even when they are only available online. SuDocs has also been the inspiration for a number of classification schemes used for state documents, such as WyDocs, CalDocs, Swank (Florida), Jackson (Hawaiʻi), and Texas State Documents.

Bibliographic Control of State and Local Documents

What is a state document? The answer might seem self-evident, but having a definition is important from a collection development and management standpoint. For example, if a document was issued jointly by the U.S. Forest Service and a state department of forestry, should it be shelved in the federal or state documents collection? Documents may be published on behalf of agencies or prepared by contractors, so it is necessary to determine whether these publications should be treated as government publications or like other library materials.

Each library makes its own determination about where state and local documents are to be shelved. In some libraries, they are part of a separate government documents collection, while in others, they are part of the local area collection. In addition, libraries must decide whether to classify state documents in the subject arrangement used by the library or to use the state documents classification scheme and shelve documents separately. What are the arguments for and against each arrangement? Placing documents in a separate collection reduces or eliminates the time required to perform subject classification. Furthermore, additional security for state publications may be justified, considering that it may be difficult or impossible to obtain replacement copies if documents go missing. On the other hand, when documents are integrated into the subject arrangement, patrons are more likely to discover and use them. Documents may be non-circulating or circulate for shorter periods than the general library collection, depending on each library’s policies.

Now that many state and local documents are issued only online, the question becomes whether or not to create metadata for them, and if so, how? Some librarians have argued that, “We can’t catalog the internet,” and have declined to create metadata for online publications, even when their print equivalents would be cataloged. Others assert that cataloging helps patrons to find documents that otherwise would not be highly ranked in an internet search. Each library’s policies and cataloging capacity will determine its approach.

Bibliographic Control of Intergovernmental Organization (IGO) Publications

The Dag Hammarskjöld Library creates cataloging records for UN publications, which are available in WorldCat. It uses the United Nations Thesaurus for subject terms rather than Library of Congress Subject Headings. Similarly, the European Union uses the EuroVoc thesaurus. Cataloging records created by IGOs often do not contain Library of Congress or Dewey classification numbers. Most IGOs have devised a numbering system that is used to arrange their publications. For example, the United Nations uses document symbols to classify its publications. Some libraries shelve UN documents according to these numbers, but many more integrate them into the general collection. A few libraries have developed their own accession number systems for IGO publications. These in-house systems usually group all of the publications of a particular IGO.

Librarian’s Library


U.S. Government Publishing Office. (2018). GPO cataloging guidelines. https://www.fdlp.gov/cataloging-guidelines

The guidelines provide examples of GPO’s cataloging practices for many types of material such as Congressional publications, maps, technical reports, audiovisual material, integrating resources, and computer files.

U.S. Government Publishing Office. (2018). Superintendent of Documents classification guidelines. https://www.fdlp.gov/classification-guidelines/introduction-to-the-classification-guidelines

MacGilvray, M. (Ed). (1993). GPO classification manual: A practical guide to the Superintendent of Documents Classification System. Washington, DC: Library Programs Service, Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office. https://www.fdlp.gov/file-repository/gpo-cataloging/1172-gpo-classification-manual

These two sources explain SuDoc classification in detail and can be used by librarians to construct SuDoc numbers for documents that were issued without them. It is customary to indicate a non-GPO-constructed SuDoc number by adding a lower-case x to it, e.g., D 201.45/2:K 12/2x.

Collection Development

Latham, B. (2018). Tips for collection development. In Latham, B., Finding and using U.S. government information: A practical guide for librarians. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield (pp. 205-216).

In this chapter, Latham covers the basics of collection development for depository libraries and points to the most important websites used by librarians who maintain federal documents collections.

  1. Miller, S. J. (1980). The depository library system: A history of the distribution of federal government publications to libraries of the United States from the early years of the nation to 1895 (Doctoral dissertation). New York: Columbia University.
  2. Miller 1980.
  3. Miller 1980.
  4. Hartnett, C. J., Sevetson, A., and Forte, E. J. (2016). Fundamentals of government information: Mining, finding, evaluating, and using government resources. (2nd ed.). Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman.
  5. Miller 1980.
  6. Schmeckebier, L. F. and Eastin, R. B. (1969). Government publications and their use. (2nd rev. ed.). Washington: Brookings Institution.
  7. U.S. Government Publishing Office. (2016). Keeping America informed: The U.S. Government Publishing Office: A legacy of service to the nation 1861-2016. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Publishing Office.
  8. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Technical Information Service. (1959). Guide to AEC reports for the depository libraries. Oak Ridge, TN: Atomic Energy Commission. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015095053073
  9. Barrett, B. (1978). Direct sales by other agencies. Government Publications Review 5(2), 141-145.
  10. Barrett 1978.
  11. Sinclair, G. E. (2019). The Documents Expediting Project, 1946-2004. DttP: Documents to the People 47(2), 8-15.
  12. Mingus, M. D. (2012). Disseminating the maps of a postwar world: A case study of the University of Florida's participation in government depository programs. Journal of Map & Geography Libraries 8(1), 5-20.
  13. Davenport, C. (2018, Jan. 10). How much has ‘climate change’ been scrubbed from federal websites? A lot. New York Times.
  14. End of term presidential harvest 2016https://digital2.library.unt.edu/nomination/eth2016/about/
  15. U.S. Government Printing Office. (2007). Web harvesting white paper V1.0. https://www.fdlp.gov/file-repository/about-the-fdlp/gpo-projects/web-harvesting/543-web-harvesting-white-paper/file
  16. Bower, C. (1989). Federal fugitives, DNDs and other aberrants: a cosmology. DttP: Documents to the People 17(3), 120-126.
  17. Poore, B. P. (1885). A descriptive catalogue of the government publications of the United States, September 5, 1774-March 4, 1881. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.
  18. Ames, J. G. (1894). Comprehensive index to the publications of the United States government, 1881-1893. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.
  19. United States. Superintendent of Documents. (1907). Checklist of United States public documents. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.
  20. Morehead, J. (1999). Introduction to United States government information sources (6th ed.). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 81.
  21. HathiTrust. United States government document registry. Available at https://www.hathitrust.org/usdocs_registry.
  22. Federal Depository Library Program. (2018). The classification system: A brief history. https://www.fdlp.gov/classification-guidelines/the-classification-system-a-brief-history


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