Reference from Coast to Coast – Finding Congressional Documents from the Past

Welcome to Reference From Coast to Coast: Sources and Strategies, a monthly column written by Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen.

Jan Bissett is a Reference Librarian in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan office of Dickinson Wright PLLC. She is a past president of the Michigan Association of Law Libraries and has published articles on administrative and research related topics in the Michigan Association of Law Libraries Newsletter and Michigan Defense Quarterly. She and Margi Heinen team teach Legal Information Sources and Services for Wayne State University’s Library and Information Science Program in Detroit, Michigan.

Margi Heinen is the Manager of Library Services at Sherman and Howard in Denver, Colorado. She has taught courses on Legal Resources at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and at Wayne State University’s School of Library and Information Science. She has been a faculty member for several I.P.E. presentations including “Internet Strategies for the Paralegal in Michigan” and ICLE’s “Internet Legal Resources” seminar. She is a member of the Colorado Association of Law Libraries and the American Association of Law Libraries.

As the old year comes to a close and 2003 approaches, we are reminded how, as legal researchers, we cannot dismiss material because it is older. Crucial information for those of us in the legal field may be found in case law from centuries past. In fact, “classic” case law is relatively easy to find on the Web as well as in local law libraries. More difficult to grasp and locate are the older materials that make up legislative history or Congressional intent. These materials are found in a number of formats and locations, but electronic access is still spotty. We hope this column will highlight for you some of the dates and sources to remember when seeking federal legislative material from bygone years.

What do we mean by “past” and older? Generally we mean pre-1970 materials. Zimmerman’s Research Guide entries “Federal Legislative History“, “Congressional Committee Prints“and “Congressional Reports” provide an overview of their respective topics including leading sources often used to obtain the materials. Morehead’s Introduction to United States Government Information Sources, 6th Ed. provides additional information for those researching congressional documents.

The Web also offers numerous guides on Congressional materials. Southern Methodist University’s Underwood Law Library’s Congressional Documents for Arguing Legislative Intent clearly sets out finding tools and types of documents and where to find them. Similarly, Ohio State University’s David Lincove has prepared a chart of Congressional and Administrative sources which helpfully shows indexes, dates and formats for each type of document. As does the University ofWashington’s University Libraries Congressional Resources: Selected Congressional materials available on the Internet and in the University Libraries. Guidessuch as Duke University’s Perkins Library Historical Research Guide and Government Information:Finding Older Documents (Pre-1976) from Youngstown State University Maag Libraryprovide the researcher with an overview of materials and the specifics of indices and sources, as well as their respective library holdings. These guides and charts can provide needed bibliographic information and research tips even if these collections are inaccessible to you.

If we want to begin at the beginning of American legislative life, the Library of Congress provides the means. In their A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation,links are provided for Congressional documents and debates from 1774-1875. Images of the documents are available as well as the text. Perhaps most importantly for researchers, this web site includes descriptions and history of the sources available. Included are bills, House and Senate Journals, debates and selected portions of the Serial Set (unfortunately only 1834-35, 1899 and 1904-5).

The Serial Set is a source which should be recognized by librarians who do any amount of legal research. It contains House and Senate documents and reports bound together by Session of Congress. For the full story on the Serial Set you can consult U.S. Congressional Serial Set: What it is and its history by Congressional Documents Specialist Virginia Saunders, at GPO Access. Another helpful guide to the Serial Set is in the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D.C. Legislative Source Book, which includes the table of contents or “Schedule of Volumes”. This scanned Schedule of Volumes covers the 91st Congress, Second Session (1970) through the 106th Congress Second Session (2000). Researchers can see what volume of the Serial Set contains specific House or Senate reports or documents from these tables.

Finding an index to Congressional documents can be the most difficult part of a hunt for older material. Prior to 1970, researchers needed to rely upon United States Congressional and Administrative News to list (and reprint some) committee reports or go to the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications for indexing Then came CIS (Congressional Information Service), and life became easier. Print indices and documents on microfiche made CIS the source for Congressional materials from 1970 onward. CIS also provided help for those murky years before 1970 by publishing the CIS U.S. Serial Set Indexfor reports and the CIS Congressional Hearings Index (1833-1969) for Congressional hearings. Then CIS went one step further with the CIS Index to Unpublished United States Senate Hearings, 1823-1964. As you can see – a search for older Congressional materials practically requires CIS materials.

Congressional Universe, a database from LexisNexis™ which is available at many academic and large public libraries, provides the CIS Legislative History Index (1969 to present) and some Congressional Reports and Documents. Unfortunately, the full text reports and documents don’t really help us with older materials – reports only go back to 1989, and documents to 1995. The indices of CIS available on Congressional Universe are very helpful, however, and are worth the price of a library card if your public library has access.

These same academic and large public libraries may well be the source in your geographical area for these older materials. Libraries which are part of the federal depository program are usually your best bet for the actual documents located through indices. You can find depository libraries at the GPO web site. In the current climate of uncertainty regarding the Government Printing Office and the Library Depository Program, it is possible that those institutions that have always been crucial to locating older Congressional materials will not be depositories for newer legislative items, but they will remain invaluable in the quest for historical materials.

Links Mentioned in this Article

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation

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Chart of Congressional and Administrative sources

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Congressional Committee Prints

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Congressional Documents for Arguing Legislative Intent

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Congressional Reports

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D.C. Legislative Source Book

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Federal Legislative History

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Government Information

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Historical Research Guide

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Introduction to United States Government Information Sources, 6th Ed.

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