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). Most of the early federal government documents are available digitally at AAS. Links are available in the access section below.

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.


State and Town Documents

The Society has 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 also holds and actively collects state and town documents from outside of New England.

State publications include constitutional conventions reports, legislative journals, and compilations of laws. Other documents include 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. These include 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 1840 are cataloged in the General Catalog. When attempting to locate any government documents, whether cataloged or uncataloged on the state or local levels, users should be certain to consult with the staff of the readers' services department.

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