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U.S. Serial Set: Printing and Distribution

Distribution and Availability

A House resolution of December 1813 ordered that editions of 200 copies of Serial Set volumes be printed in addition to the "usual" number required for use within Congress, and established distribution rules not only for that time but also "for every future Congress". Again, the Senate followed the House's lead, and the resulting policies although they were often inconsistent were intended to ensure that the Serial Set would always be available for public use.

At first, Congress ordered Serial Set volumes to be distributed, as printed, to incorporated universities, colleges, and historical societies throughout the country. By convention, it appears that State and territorial libraries also received them, although they were not formally included in the distribution scheme.

Initially, the Library of Congress and the State Department shared responsibility for distributing the set. The latter cared for educational institutions, the former for all others as well as the public-at-large. When the distribution list came to exceed the number of available copies, Congress ordered larger printings, and the edition size grew in this way to 300 copies by the 1840s.

In 1858, Congress shifted responsibility for educational distribution to the Department of the Interior and gave the Secretary of Interior some leeway in choosing recipients. At that time, Congress also provided that each Senator designate a library for distribution within his State, and that future distribution be kept equal in each congressional district and territory. This action was the basis for a depository library system whose growth and changes have greatly affected Serial Set availability.

Although Serial Set volumes have always been distributed to depository libraries, the composition of the set sent to these libraries has changed from time to time. For a short time at the close of the 19th century, the journals were sent only to some of the depositories that regularly received the set (three libraries in each State and territory), and from 1905 through 1938, the lettered volumes (reports on private bills and simple and concurrent resolutions) were printed in a limited edition exclusively for the principal governmental libraries in Washington.

The latter practice resulted in more serious omissions from the generally distributed volumes than might at first appear to be the case. Private bills were defined as "all bills for the relief of private parties, bills granting pensions, bills removing political disabilities, and bills for the survey of rivers and harbors", and reports on such bills have often been of public interest. In addition, simple resolutions in some instances represent an important research resource. These reports sometimes include impeachment proceedings and the results of committee investigations, many of them detailed and exhaustive. An investigation of the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota appears, for example, in two lettered volumes and contains nearly 3,000 pages of testimony and reports.

With the passage of the Printing Act in 1895, depositories began to receive executive branch publications that duplicated volumes they received in Serial Set shipments. In 1907, in an economy move related to the lettered volumes policy, depositories began to receive these duplicates in Serial Set shipments in a "plain-title" edition, lacking both the distinctive sheepskin bindings that were then used for Serial Set volumes and the set's series front matter. Soon afterward (1913), Congress removed these executive publications volumes altogether from Serial Set depository shipments.

Since many of the reports and documents that depositories receive in non-Serial Set shipments have been issued as separates in pamphlet form or assembled in bindings in a different order from their Serial Set counterparts, they are difficult to use in assembling Serial Sets and have been filed separately by many libraries. Because they lack Serial Set title pages, tables of contents, and spine stampings, they are necessarily incomplete even when assembled with other Serial Set publications.

In 1922, moreover, depositories were given the opportunity to select certain classes of publications in advance, but were not offered the Serial Set in its complete version as a class. The effect of this change in depository arrangements has been to reduce the number of libraries that contain the set as a whole even in variant form.

Because international exchange libraries have long been treated like depositories, the only libraries that now have the complete Serial Set in its true form are the five major government libraries in Washington, D.C.: the House and Senate Libraries, the Library of Congress, the Public Documents Library (now, except for current publications, housed in the National Archives), and the National Archives Library.

The CIS U.S. Serial Set (1789-1969) microfiche collection was the first collection anywhere to provide full-text access to the complete Serial Set in a non-print format. Drawing primarily on the collections in the U.S. Senate Library, with fill-ins from a number of other sources as needed (including the National Archives Library), it includes every known Serial Set publication. Every gap in the file was thoroughly investigated to determine whether it represented a published document (in which case that document was located and filmed) or an unused number (in which case a record was made of the positive verification of this fact).

Size and Shape of Volumes

The House resolution establishing uniform printing standards for subsequent documents provided that the materials assembled for the set be printed "in octavo fold", and later regulations in both Houses elaborated on this order to establish a policy for volume specifications that has survived largely intact to this day.

With the exception of the period between the beginning of the 46th and the end of the 59th Congresses (1878-1907), well over 90 percent of the Serial Set volumes have pages roughly 6x9 inches, interleaved with folded sheets of tables, maps, or other figures that cannot be reduced to this size. Where an entire volume is made up of such oversize material, it may be found in an oversize binding with all its pages flat, in a normal size binding with its pages folded, or it may be found boxed as an unbound set of folded sheets.

Between 1879 and 1907, many volumes in the documents series were printed quarto (approximately 9x12 inches in size) and journals have been quarto since 1889. Thickness of volumes has not been consistently regulated, but all fall within the range conventionally allotted to books as opposed to pamphlets, and most are between 1-1/2 and 3 inches thick.

In some cases, only the Senate version of duplicative House and Senate materials has been bound as part of the Serial Set, although the House versions were assigned serial numbers and cross-referenced in the Senate volumes.

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