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An Overview of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set
by Richard J. McKinney*
Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C., Inc.
Last revised in May, 2012
The U.S. Serial Set is a bound series of over 14,000 volumes and contains within it nearly all of the hundreds of thousands of numbered congressional reports and documents published since 1817. The numbered documents and reports include many executive branch and legislative branch publications and until 1953, the Serial Set also included the official House and Senate journals. It usually takes a couple of years for the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) to assign Serial Set volume numbers to publications in a particular congressional session, and it usually takes a few more years for GPO to actually publish the set.
Original and Current Authorization
Historically, the Serial Set
began with a December 8, 1813, House Order, which stated: "Ordered, That, henceforward, all Messages and communications from the President of the United States; all letters and reports from the several departments of the Government; all motions and resolutions offered for the consideration of the House; all reports of committees of the House; and all other papers which, in the usual course of proceeding, or by special order of the House shall be printed in octavo fold, and separately from the Journals - shall have their pages numbered in one continued series of numbers, commencing and terminating with each session" (v. 9 Journal of the House of Representatives
, pages 166-167).
There were also many subsequent orders and resolutions on the matter and a continuous series of page numbers per session was dropped in favor of the original pagination on each document. The current legal authority for the U.S. Congressional Serial Set can be found at the following cites in the U.S. Code:
44 U.S.C. Sec. 701
- 'Usual number' of documents and reports; distribution of House and Senate documents and reports; binding; reports on private bills; number of copies printed; distribution.
44 U.S.C. Sec. 719
- Classification and numbering of publications ordered printed by Congress; designation of publications of departments; printing of committee hearings.
Contents of the Serial Set
The Serial Set is a somewhat changing composite of almost all House and Senate reports and documents published since 1817. It generally includes committee reports related to bills and other matters, presidential communications to Congress, treaty materials, certain executive department publications, and certain non-governmental publications.
The Serial Set does not normally include the text of congressional debates, bills, resolutions, hearings, committee prints, and publications from support agencies of Congress such as the General Accounting Office and the Congressional Budget Office. However, by special order (usually in the Senate) some 300 selected hearings and many bill texts were included, especially in the 19th century and early 20th century.
From their inception, the Serial Set has always included House and Senate numbered reports including committee reports related to legislation, joint House and Senate conference reports related to legislation, and reports on other matters.
Committee reports related to legislation frequently accompany bills and resolutions that are sent from a committee to the House or Senate floor. These reports generally try to advance the case for the bill's consideration and explain its content. The text of the legislation, how it affects current law, or its budget implications may also be included.
Joint conference reports are almost always printed as House reports and are numbered in sequence with other House reports. Conference reports contain the agreed upon text between conferees of the House and Senate who have passed different versions of the same legislation. Also, the conference report will usually have a joint explanatory statement or an explanation from the managers of the bill. Committee reports and conference reports are two of the primary legislative history research documents used by lawyers in deciphering the legislative intent of various laws.
Committee reports not directly related to legislation may include legislative activity reports, reports on special studies or investigations, reports on the printing of documents, and other matters.
The Serial Set has always included House and Senate numbered documents. These document series are the ones that have varied the most over time with some of their varying content listed below.
The Serial Set has always included Presidential messages and documents sent to Congress such as proposed legislation, veto messages, the Economic Report of the President, and others, but this does not include presidential proclamations and executive orders. Presidential communications may be numbered as House or Senate documents.
Beginning in 1879 though 1976 the Serial Set included the Census Bureau's annual Statistical Abstract of the United States (numbered as a House document).
Beginning in 1882 and ending in 1933 the Serial Set included the biennial Congressional Directory (numbered as a House document).
Beginning in 1896 the Serial Set included and continues to include House and Senate procedure manuals and financial expenditure reports from the Secretary of the Senate (1916 to current) and the Clerk of the House (1896 to 1931 and 1975 to current). These are respectively numbered as Senate or House documents..
Beginning in fiscal year 1923 the Serial Set includes the annual the Budget of the United States Government with any appendices and supplemental publications (numbered as a House document).
Beginning in 1979 the Serial Set began including Senate Treaty Documents (until 1981 they were call Senate Executive Documents and had been assigned alphabetically arranged letters instead of numbers) and Senate Executive Reports, which recommend approval or disapproval of certain treaties or nominations.
The Serial Set has included a changing composite of executive branch publications, such as the agriculture yearbook (1894-1975), the minerals yearbook (1932-1968), annual reports of the public health service (1913-1952), patent decisions (1925-1953), foreign relations papers (1895-1955 and compilations from 1789-1901), geological surveys (1832-1945), reports on rivers and harbors (1817-1982), annual reports from various federal agencies (1817-1976), and other documents. These are usually numbered as House documents, but sometimes as Senate documents. Except for Presidential communications and the annual report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance Funds ("Social Security Trust Fund" - 1942 to current) few executive branch publications are continued in the Serial Set today.
Finally, the Serial Set has always included various non-governmental publications, such as the annual reports of the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, the annual report of the Smithsonian Institution, the annual report of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the proceedings of the national convention of the American Legion, the proceedings of the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other publications (as House or Senate documents).
Arrangement of the Serial Set
Since 1979 the arrangement of publication class series within a congressional session is organized according to the following pattern: Senate Documents, Senate Treaty Documents (until 1981 they were called Senate Executive Documents), Senate Reports, Senate Executive Reports, House Documents, and House Reports. Within each publication series the individually numbered reports and documents all generally follow a numeric ascending order and each publication class has its own volume or volumes.
Between 1953 and 1978 (83rd Congress to 95th Congress) the publication class series within a congressional session was organized according to the following pattern: Senate Reports (broken into three categories: miscellaneous reports on public bills, miscellaneous reports on private bills, and reports on special topics), House Reports (broken into three categories: miscellaneous reports on public bills, miscellaneous reports on private bills, and reports on special topics), Senate Documents, and House Documents. Because Senate reports and House reports were broken into subdivisions, the numeric ascending order of individually numbered reports within those volumes were also broken up.
Between 1902 and 1952 (57th Congress to 82nd Congress) the publication class series within a congressional session was organized according to the following pattern: Senate Journal, House Journal, Senate Reports (broken into three categories: miscellaneous reports on public bills, miscellaneous reports on private bills, and reports on special topics), House Reports (broken into three categories: miscellaneous reports on public bills, miscellaneous reports on private bills, and reports on special topics), Senate Documents, and House Documents. Again, because of subdivisions in the Senate and House report series, the numeric order of the individually numbered reports was also broken up.
Between 1895 and 1902 (54th Congress to 56th Congress) the publication class series within a congressional session was generally organized according to the following pattern: Senate Journal, Senate Documents, Senate Reports, House Journal, House Documents, and House Reports.
Between 1847 and 1895 (30th Congress to 53rd Congress) the publication class series within a congressional session was organized according to the following pattern: Senate Journal, Senate Executive Documents (generally periodic reports from Executive Departments and related matters), Senate Miscellaneous Documents (generally other executive branch material included by special request), Senate Reports (generally reports from committee), House Journal, House Executive Documents (generally periodic reports from executive departments, but not in duplication of Senate Executive Documents), House Miscellaneous Documents (generally other executive branch material included by special request), and House Reports (generally reports from committees).
Between 1817 and 1847 (15th Congress to 29th Congress) the publication class series within a congressional session was organized according to the following pattern: Senate Journal, Senate Documents, House Journal, House Documents, and House Reports (begun in 1820, 16th Congress).
The American State Papers, published privately between 1832 and 1861, is a collection of executive and legislative branch documents dating between 1789 and 1838. Although not a part of the Serial Set numbering scheme the Papers are often associated with it and were published according to subject class not according to congressional session. The subject classes of the publication series are as follows: Claims, Commerce and Navigation, Finance, Foreign Relations, Indian Affairs, Military Affairs, Naval Affairs, Post Office Department, Public Lands, and Miscellaneous.
Numbering Schemes in the Serial Set
Generally, each document or report has its own numeric pagination so that Serial Set volumes containing more then one document or report would have more than one series of sequential numbers. Sequential pagination for a whole publication class in a congressional session was dropped at the outset of the Serial Set.
Each publication series of reports and documents has its own internal ascending numeric sequence with a unique number given for each document or report within a particular Congress or a particular congressional session. Until about 1854 (33rd Congress) the document or report number would appear on each page of the document or report. Until the early 20th century both House and Senate documents were numbered by session and House reports were numbered by session until 1881. Senate reports had always been numbered by Congress and all other publication series are now numbered by Congress as well.
Before 1979 session volume numbers were assigned to each publication series within each congressional session, with the documents and reports for each publication series generally bound together in ascending numeric sequence. A publication series might have a number of volumes within a series for a congressional session or it might have only one. Title pages with session volume numbers can be seen on most all the Serial Set volumes between 1854 and 1980. A table of contents page at the beginning of each volume with more than one document or report lists the sequential numbers and document or report titles which that volume contains.
In the past odd sized or extra long documents were frequently assigned their own session volume number and placed at the end of a publication series, out of numeric sequence, and the Serial Set volumes followed this practice. Also, between 1905 and 1939 reports on private bills and resolutions and those on simple resolutions were assigned session volumes with letters instead of numbers and separately printed at the end of a report series. Although in the Serial Set these volumes were assigned numbers, the practice further disrupted the sequential order of reports published in the Serial Set. In addition, session lettered volumes of the Serial Set were not widely distributed.
Between 1964 and 1978 (second session of the 88th Congress through the 95th Congress) each publication series within a congressional session was assigned a single session volume number with perhaps multiple parts and this pattern was also followed by the Serial Set volume number series. Thus during that time period many Serial Set volumes had multiple parts.
In 1895 serial numbers were assigned retrospectively to the entire series that was begun in 1817, and after that time these serial numbers appear on the spine of each officially published volume of the Serial Set. In many libraries the earlier volumes had their assigned number hand written on the spines. The serial numbering sequence gave the set its popular name, but it was not until the Serial Set was published for the 97th Congress (1981-1982) that the series was given the official title United States Congressional Serial Set and since that time all volumes of the Serial Set have that name on their title pages.
Indexing to the Serial Set
Some sort of indexing has always been a part of the U.S. Serial Set. For instance, from 1817-1897 (15th through 54th congresses) a subject index was placed in each volume that began a report or document series within a congressional session. For a listing of congressional documents published before 1817, see Public Documents of the First Fourteen Congresses, 1789-1817; Papers Relating to Early Congressional Documents, compiled by Aldoplus W. Greely (56/1: S.doc. 428; 1900, 850 p. [placed in Serial Set vol. 3879 with a 1903 supplement in vol. 4735, H.doc. 745]).
Other early related indices or lists published by U.S. Superintendent of Documents include the Tables of and Annotated Index to the Congressional Series of U.S. Public Documents (1902; covers most of the documents in the Serial Set between 1817-1893); the Checklist of United States Publications: 1789-1909; and the Index to the Reports and Documents of the 54th Congress, 1st Session to 72nd Congress, 2d Session; December 2, 1895-March 4, 1933, with Numerical Lists and Schedule of Volumes.
For each congressional session from the 73rd to the 96th Congress (1933-1980) the Superintendent of Documents (GPO) published a separate Numerical Lists and Schedule of Volumes. The numerical list was organized in ascending numeric order by publication series for each congressional session, and the schedule of volumes showed which numeric reports and documents were assigned to which session and Serial Set volume number. These separate GPO publications were combined and republished in three volumes by the Williams S. Hein Company.
For the 97th Congress (1981-1982) GPO issued a full cataloged Serial Set index as a supplement to its Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications series titled United States Congressional Serial Set Supplement, 97th Congress: 1981-1982: Entries and Index. Published in 1985 it was later (1990) accompanied by an addendum titled Numerical Lists of the Documents and Reports, but it had no schedule of volumes.
In 1988, beginning with the 98th Congress (1983-1984) GPO began publishing the United States Congressional Serial Set Catalog. At the beginning of this publications is a "Numerical List of Documents and Reports" and a "Schedule of Serial Set Volumes". The Catalog is usually published several years or more after the Congress it pertains.
In a more timely fashion GPO published final schedules of Serial Set volumes
for each congressional session in its newsletter to federal depository libraries entitled Administrative Notes Technical Supplement
(ANTS). The newsletter is available on the web from 1996 through 2008. In 2008, the GPO discontinued ANTS in favor of a web-based application known as WEBtech Notes.
This application is updated continuously and can be searched.
The CIS U.S. Serial Set Index (1789-1969)
, formerly published by the Congressional Information Service, Inc. (CIS), is now part of the Proquest U.S. Serial Set Digital Collection
and it has become the principal tool in identifying Serial Set
volumes to congressional reports and documents published before 1970. The Index
also covers certain documents printed by Congress before 1817 known as the American State Papers
. The Index
was originally issued in twelve parts covering certain time periods. Components include: (1) an index of subjects and keywords; (2) an index of names of individuals and organizations, usually related to private relief legislation (3) a numerical list of reports and documents; and (4) a schedule of Serial Set
volumes. There is also now a four volume index organized by bill numbers that relate to legislative reports and documents and a 16 volume index to the 54,000 maps located in the Serial Set
Tips on Using the Electronic CIS Indices
The Proquest U.S. Serial Set Collection
(formerly Congressional Information Service - CIS) can be used to obtain a Serial Set volume number
for a specific, known congressional report published before 1970. For example, after accessing the database use the sample search formula "h rp 234 89". In this example "h" representing "House", "rp" represents "Report", "234" represents the 234th numbered house report during a particular Congress, and "89" represents the 89th Congress (1965-1966). Use "s rp" for Senate reports, "h doc" for House documents and "s doc" for Senate documents. If you have only the Congress and the bill number use the formula "78 s 1201" or "89 hr 2107"; with 78 and 89 representing the Congress and "s 1201" and "hr 2107" representing bill numbers within that Congress. Of course you can also search for terms used in the title or the assigned index (the Serial Set
is indexed by keyword descriptors and the other indices generally have a thesaurus), but unless your search is limited to the Serial Set
document type [and doc-type(serial set)] your results may also include published and unpublished hearings indexed before 1970.
The CIS/Index to Publications of the United States Congress (1970 to current)
gives the user abstracts and indexing for congressionally published hearings, prints, reports, and documents published since 1969. The electronic version of this CIS/Index
now published by Proquest
is also available on LexisNexis, but neither the paper nor the electronic version give you corresponding Serial Set
volume numbers. The "Schedule of Volumes to the U.S. Serial Set" will assist users in the absence of this information available electronically. However, if you do have a report number and you want to find more information about it in the electronic CIS/Index
, use the sample formula "H Rpt 107-23" with 107 representing a specific Congress (the 107th) and "23" the report number within that Congress. Congressional reports published after 1990 (102nd Congress and thereafter) are generally linked to the electronic text of the report in the LexisNexis CIS/Index
The "Schedule of Volumes
" will also assist you in identifying Serial Set
volume numbers for reports listed under each public law number listed in the annual CIS Legislative Histories Index
, a part of the CIS/Index
, which is also available on LexisNexis in electronic form.
Source Libraries for the Serial Set
Before 1979 only 22 complete copies of U.S. Serial Set, with official looking color coated spines, were published and distributed to certain federal government "posterity" libraries
. These included the United States Senate and House libraries, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Office of the Superintendent of Documents Library (now housed at the National Archives). In the past, depository libraries and international exchange libraries have generally received a less complete edition, such as no lettered session volumes between 1905 and 1939 and no (or few) documents that had previously been published by executive branch agencies. However, beginning with the 96th Congress (1979-1980) all depository and international exchange libraries could choose to select the complete Serial Set
either in paper or microfiche (no one gets the fancy binding anymore). About 1,000 choose to do so, some 500 in paper and some 500 in fiche. Also many libraries have chosen to purchase the CIS U.S. Serial Set Microfiche(1789-1969)
collection, which is regarded as probably the most complete set available.
Many libraries that own the Serial Set may not loan its individual volumes
, but they may allow visitors to view and photocopy portions of it. Selected libraries in the Washington D.C. area holding some or all of the U.S. Serial Set
are listed in LLSDC's Union List of Legislative Documents
. A search on OCLC
with the term "Serial Set" should reveal most of the libraries that own the set. You can also search the catalogs
of major U.S. libraries in your geographic area.
A U.S. Congressional Serial Set Inventory
project, covering the years 1789-1969, attempts to show library holdings for each Serial Set
volume in some 24 institutions. It has been said that no library has a full set, with none missing, of all the volumes of the U.S. Serial Set
. The project is currently maintained at the University of North Texas Library.
Beginning with the volumes released for the 105th Congress (1997-1998), only regional depository libraries
, or one library in each state without a regional collection, are to receive the Serial Set in paper format
through the Federal Depository Library Program
. Libraries that formerly obtained the Serial Set
in paper format have various plans to continue the series including receiving it in microfiche (with Serial Set
volume polymer dividers), relying on electronic format (GPO Access), making direct hard copy purchases of the Serial Set
, or binding the documents and reports themselves according to the GPO schedule of volumes list. Beginning with the 105th Congress, depository libraries that have selected to receive individual U.S. Senate and House documents and reports in paper also receive the paper sheets of Serial Set
title and table of contents pages for possible binding with the proper documents and reports.
Other Sources and Serial Set Projects
Selected 19th century and early 20th century (1833-1917) documents and reports from the U.S. Serial Set
have been optically scanned and placed on the Library of Congress American Memory Project
web site collection known as A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation
. Although the documents are not word searchable you can browse the documents by congress and there are navigators to the set largely using original indexing. The selections include selected maps, correspondence on the emigration of Indians, pension rolls of the United States, a statistical view of U.S. population from 1790 to 1830, Indian land cessions, journals of the Confederate Congress, and selected other documents and reports. Usually there are a few documents available in each congress. One caution is that users are able to access only one page at a time and printing those pages generally results in showing only about two thirds of the text on a printed sheet.
, a division of Newsbank, Inc., has released a digitized collection of the complete U.S. Congressional Serial Set (1817-1994)
with the American State Papers
(1789-1838). The company employs a very extensively researched metadata and indexing system that, with a guided search form, allows researchers to search in 15 different fields including in a full citation text, in an all text field via the OCR generated ASCII text, in a title field, in a subject field, in an author field, in a bill/resolution number field, in a congress/session field, in a publication number field, in a geographic location field, in a language field, in a Serial Set volume number field, in a personal name field, in a publication category field, in a uniform title field, and in a year of publication field. The collection also allows you to browse by hierarchically arranged subjects, by publication category, by standing committee authors, and by congress. Printing or downloading can be done by page, by group of pages or by document.
In 2010 Proquest
purchased the U.S. Congressional Serial Set Digital Collection (1817-1969)
including the American State Papers
(1789-1838) from LexisNexis and placed it its new Proquest Congressional
product marketed largely to academic institutions. However, LexisNexis still markets the Collection
to the legal community. The Collection uses modified metadata and indexing from the extensive CIS U.S. Serial Set Index
. Access allows legal researchers to use regular Lexis string searching while access via Proquest is through guided search forms. The service permits full text searching of words in the OCR generated ASCII text as well as through eleven index categories -- by CIS and title page, by document type, by legislative number (Statutes At Large citation, bill number or public law number), by subject term, by keyword indexing to illustrations and statistical tables, by author (corporate or personal), by petitioners or witnesses, by document or report number, by Serial Set volume number, and by Superintendent of Documents number. Printing or downloading is available by page, group of pages or by document.
A rough numeric guide to Serial Set
volumes organized by Congress can be found in theTable of Congressional Publication Volumes and Presidential Issuances
published by the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C. on their web based Legislative Source Book
, which also includes this article. By using subtraction you can see that in recent congresses the Serial Set
averages around 100 plus volumes during a single two session Congress. However, in the early part of the twentieth century a 300 to 500 volume Serial Set
per Congress was fairly common. In the past many more Executive Branch publications (especially various annual reports) were published as House and Senate documents, but later in the century Congress became more selective in what it choose to publish, and now few executive branch documents are published by Congress except those transmitted by the President. Some of this decrease was due to the recommendations of the Congressional Serial Set Committee, established in 1979 as an advisory committee to the Joint Committee on Printing of the United States Congress.
Please note that recent Congressional reports and documents are now available for free on the web
from the 104th Congress (1995-1996) forward through FDsys
(reports only). Commercially, congressional reports are also available electronically from 1990 forward through LexisNexis
or from CQ.com
from 1989 forward (see CQ Archives). Westlaw's legislative history file (LH) also has selected committee reports related to public laws going back as far as 1948 and Lexis has House and Senate documents from 1995 forward. The Thomas database has information on congressional bills back to the 93rd Congress
(1973-1974), including any report numbers associated with those bills. The above "Schedule of Serial Set Volumes" can then be used to locate the Serial Set
volume that contains the report.
*This article was written by Richard J. McKinney, Assistant Law Librarian, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Washington, D.C. A special thank you goes to Margot Gee, Emily Carr and August Imholz, Jr. who made valuable suggestions or assisted in its production. Gratitude is also expressed to the staff at the U.S. Department of Interior Library for allowing their Serial Set collection and indices to be used by the author.
Last Update: September 21, 2012