The Government Domain: New GPO Catalog of Government Publications

Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting is author of The United States Government Internet Manual (Bernan Press) and contributing author for The Congressional Deskbook, 2005-2007 (TheCapitol.Net).


With the release of a completely revamped Catalog of Government Publications (CGP), the Government Printing Office (GPO) has taken a key step away from public web services that were state-of-the-art in 1994 but antiquated by 2004. Previously, the GPO Access web databases all used the WAIS search engine; CGP is the first to break from the pack, employing off-the-shelf catalog software. The new CGP is just the first step. Modernization of the rest of the GPO system should come about in the next few years as the result of GPO’s big Future Digital System (FDsys) project.

CGP is a searchable catalog of current and historical federal congressional, executive, and judicial publications that are in print, electronic, and other formats. This is an ambitious scope. Librarians who work with government documents know that building a current and complete inventory of federal publications is similar to herding cats. So, if you don’t find something in the CGP, it doesn’t mean the document doesn’t exist. Keep looking, preferably with the help of a knowledgeable librarian.

The New CGP

The new CGP is based on the ALEPH library catalog software. ALEPH is a popular choice for academic library catalogs in the U.S. and internationally. If your local library uses ALEPH you may recognize some elements, or you may not; the ALEPH interface can be customized for each catalog, as it has been for CGP.

In addition to the search software, the newly launched CGP features a number of improvements, including:

  • Publications cataloged from July 1976 forward. (Previously, CGP covered 1994 forward.)
  • Easy-to-find links to the online versions of publications.
  • An integrated “locate in a library” function to find which Federal Depository Libraries across the country hold a publication.
  • The ability to mark selected catalog records to print or email.


The CGP home page features the catalog’s basic search level, a single search box with keyword search as the default. Searches can also be limited to the title, author, or subject indexes.

Screenshot of Basic Search

CGP also has an advanced search and an expert search. Advanced search is one click away from the home page, and it has a pile of additional options. Used most simply, it can help with guided boolean searches. Advanced users can choose to limit their search terms to any of over 25 indexes, including publisher name, technical report number, and SuDoc class number. Advanced search also allows for limits by publication year, format (e.g., books, maps, DVD), and language.

Screenshot of Advanced Search

The advanced search screen is the first place we see an option to search special portions of the entire catalog. The specialized catalogs are: Congressional Serial Set; Congressional Publications; GPO Access Publications; Internet Publications; Periodicals; and Serials. If you select a specific catalog, CGP provides a brief description of its scope. These specialized catalogs are the turf of librarians and other expert users. The fine distinctions may be lost on others. “Periodicals” means “issued at a regular frequency of three or more times per year,” for example, while “Serials” means “published two times a year or less frequently.”

The option for expert search only appears (along the top menu graphic) once you have moved to advanced search or executed a search. Expert search mode is just that. To those with knowledge of the ALEPH search syntax and the abbreviated codes for each index, it opens the door to more search power and flexibility. Expert search is most likely to appeal to a small percentage of researchers who use CGP on daily basis. GPO has provided adequate documentation of the expert mode in the CGP help files, however, so taking the plunge is not so difficult if you find you need to go beyond the power of advanced search now and then.

CGP also has a browse mode, a feature that might not be immediately understood by the generation raised on Google. Like expert mode, the browse option only appears (along the top menu graphic) once you have moved to the advanced search screen or executed a search. Twelve indexes can be browsed in alphabetical or numeric order. Browse can help to capture variations in an author’s name within the catalog, for instance, or to explore the depth of the catalog in specific areas. Power searchers will love it; others may scratch their heads.

The Results

Once you have submitted a search-basic, advanced, expert, or browse-the new CGP offers many more options for processing your results than the old catalog did. See the image below for a sample results screen. (This is the default for displaying initial results. A “preferences” menu lets you choose other options for your default display.)

Screenshot of Results

Multiple individual records can be selected using the checkbox next to each title. You can choose to view and print only your selected results, or you can email up to twenty selected records. You can also create a subset of selected results to refine or display as you wish. Using the “previous searches” option, these subsets and other results sets from a single search session can be combined with Boolean logic, providing for some sophisticated search power. Finally, the “bookshelf” option comes into play when you want to mark selected records over the course of several searches and email them all to yourself or a client.

Catalogs are not Google

Publications catalogs such as CGP-structured in the MARC format and searched with Boolean commands-are not as fuzzy and forgiving as the popular web search engines. The MARC record structure is technical and precise. For example, it includes separate fields for title, variant titles, and series titles, among other title-related fields. A basic search on the title field may pull up an item that does not appear to be correct because the variant title, not shown in the brief display, is what has been matched. For someone searching on a topic, a catalog record offers little topic-related text to search aside from the title, subject terms, and possibly some notes. It is a very small target to hit. And Boolean logic is unforgiving compared to the fuzzy logic and relevancy ranking of today’s search engines; you either match a word or you don’t. So, with the release of CGP, GPO may be hearing the inevitable “Why can’t this be like Amazon?” It’s not, but it is like your library’s online catalog.

New Bookstore, Too

Speaking of Amazon, GPO has also launched a new look for its online bookstore. It looks jazzier and features improved search capabilities; the ability to process international orders and GPO deposit accounts online; and the ability to save items in your “shopping cart” for up to 72 hours.

Posted in: E-Government, Government Resources, Library Software & Technology, Search Engines, Search Strategies, The Government Domain