Government Documents

Shortly after its founding, the American Antiquarian Society was effectively made the first depository library in the United States for federal documents other than the Library of Congress. On December 1, 1814, Congress approved "Resolution 7: For furnishing the American Antiquarian Society with a copy of the journals of Congress; and of the documents published under their order." This law was passed in part because earlier that year Isaiah Thomas' and other AAS members' petitioned Congress "to send the laws of the national government to be deposited and preserved in our library." At the same time, Isaiah Thomas requested the legislatures of the several states to make provisions for deposit of their publications at AAS. Records from cities and towns were also solicited. Thomas' ambition has been fulfilled; today the Society holds one of the nation's finest collections of early American government documents.

Federal Documents

The Society's collection of federal government documents is largely complete through 1876 and reasonably complete to the end of the nineteenth century.

The American State Papers and the nineteenth-century U.S. Serial Set form the basic collection of federal documents. The American State Papers contain reprints of the documents of the first fourteen Congresses (1789-1817), arranged by subject class in thirty-eight volumes; these are generally considered to be a part of the Serial Set. The Sheep-Bound (so called because of its early bindings) or Serial Set consists of congressional journals, reports, and related internal publications; executive branch material, including presidential messages and administrative reports of departments and agencies; and miscellaneous documents from independent bodies or commissions that were printed by order of Congress. There is a massive body of congressional material, as well as annual reports and series publications from the Department of the Interior and its many bureaus, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of State, to name but a few. Miscellaneous sets issued by acts of Congress for independent bodies include American Archives (Washington, D.C., 1837-51), a documentary history of the American Revolution edited by Peter Force; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C., 1880-1902), and M.C. Perry's richly illustrated Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854 (Washington, D.C., 1856).

AAS also holds an impressive collection of separately issued early federal documents. These include congressional journals, committee reports, presidential messages, treaties, laws, proclamations, and other official decrees. As a member of the depository library program, the Society still selects some current documents from the List of Classes of United States Government Publications Available for Selection by Depository Libraries.

In addition to publishing bills, statutes, laws, journals, and other official documents, the federal government issues scores of publications different in nature, such as accounts of commissioned explorations and expeditions. The lavishly illustrated Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan is one example. Published by order of the United States Congress in 1856, Commodore Matthew C. Perry's three volume Narrative includes stunning lithographs, including the example pictured to the right.


Federal government documents published before 1830 are fully cataloged in the general catalog

For the period after 1830 access is available through the Society's fully annotated copy of the Checklist of United States Public Documents 1789-1909 (Washington, D.C. 1911).

Most early federal government documents are also digitally available in Readex's American State Papers, 1789-1838, House and Senate Journals, Series I, 1789-1817, Senate Executive Journals, 1789-1866, and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. These resources are available onsite at AAS and via subscription from Readex.

As in most libraries, the serial set is arranged according to the Superintendent of Documents (SuDoc) classification system. This classification system is used as a method of identification in SuDoc bibliographies and lists, as well as lists issued by various government departments and agencies. Several partial indexes provide access to documents in the set. Other major indexes to the nineteenth century serial set include B.P. Poore's A Descriptive Catalogue of the Government Publications of the United States, September 5, 1774-March 4, 1881 (Washington, D.C. 1885), A.W. Greely's Public Documents of the First Fourteen Congresses 1789-1817 (Washington, D.C. 1900), and J.G. Ames's Comprehensive Index to the Publication of the United States Government 1881-1893 (Washington, D.C. 1905). The 1977 publication of the CIS U.S. Serial Set Index provides excellent subject access to material in the set. The Society has part 1 (1789-1857) and part 2 (1857-1879) of the important finding aid, published by the Congressional Information Service, Inc.

State and Town Documents

The Society has a representative selection of state and town documents issued through 1876 from all regions of the nation, and these provide an excellent body of material for historical and early legal research. Publications from the New England states, including legislative journals, session laws and statutes, are nearly complete through 1820 in their original editions. The Society holds many of the early laws and journals of New York State, as well as regions of the South and West, such as early acts and legislative journals of Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, and Indiana. State publications also include legislative manuals, annual reports on agriculture, commerce, and transportation, and various series publications such as that on the natural history of states.

The collection of town documents is especially strong for New England, although partial holdings do exist from all regions through 1876. There are municipal reports ranging from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, and from St. Louis to New Orleans. The Society has a fine collection of city and town ordinances and codes for New England and the central states; original or early editions of the charters of major cities; and a wide variety of annual reports relating to local matters such as education, public health, property assessments, crime, and recreation. Many municipal documents contain lovely illustrations. For example, New York City's Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park has important information on the design, description, and expenditures for the park, as well as superb plates of maps, engravings, lithographs, and early photographs of Central Park and its environs. The Society has a complete set of these fourteen reports, which were issued from 1857 to 1871.

State and municipal documents issued through 1830 are cataloged. Some state documents for the years 1831-1840 are also cataloged. The online and card catalogs provide access to the collection under appropriate jurisdiction (e.g., Connecticut; Concord, Massachusetts; etc.), as well as access by added entries and subject headings. These documents are integrated on the shelves throughout the library in the same manner as the federal documents. State and municipal publications issued after 1830 are uncatalogued, except on a very selective basis.

There are no specific bibliographies to ease access to state and municipal documents. State publications held by the Society are partially annotated in The Catalogue of the Library of the Law School of Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass., 1909). The uncatalogued sets of state and municipal documents generally have locally produced indexes to a particular series that are helpful in locating specific items. For example, the volume of Boston City Documents for 1875 includes a useful general subject index for their publications issued from 1834 to 1874. When attempting to locate any government documents, whether cataloged or uncataloged on the national, state, or local levels, users should be certain to consult with the staff of the readers' services department.

The Society continues to add to its preeminent collection of early American documents. Although separately issued works are scarce in today's market, AAS has recently acquired important government publications. For example, in 1974 a generous gift from Northeast Savings, formerly the First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Worcester, Mass., enabled the Society to purchase 170 separately printed laws issued by the first four Congresses of the United States. This rare collection of `slip laws' included drafts of bills, texts of treaties, and proposed constitutional amendments. Known as the First Federal Collection, this uncommon group of working papers includes the first American copyright law, the first printing of the `Bill of Rights,' the first federal law regulating trade with the Indians, the first labor legislation, and the first law establishing a uniform rule for naturalization of citizens.

In effect, the Society serves as a depository for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century government documents in a twenty-first-century environment, much as Isaiah Thomas envisioned in 1814.

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