Congressional Information for Historians

Congress has been intimately involved in American history, and contemporaneous congressional records can be an important source of information about how our government or individuals within it viewed issues and events. Also, Congress often interacts with individuals, as witnesses or as claimants, making the records of those interactions an important source of genealogical information. This page is a resource to locate congressional information other than the history of specific bills which were considered in Congress. If you are interested in legislative history of a bill, there are many other sites and written resources to help you. For example, the Chicago-Kent School of Law has a library guide about compiling a legislative history.

Where can I find historical congressional information?

An important source for historical congressional information is the U.S. Serial Set, which began publication in 1817 and currently contains thousands of volumes of documents in chronological order. Congressional publications before 1817 are contained in the American State Papers, which are also indexed in the CIS U.S. Serial Set Index but are not systematically numbered as the Serial Set is. Since 1957, only reports of House and Senate committees have been included in the Serial Set and other types of documents have been published elsewhere, but in the past reports to Congress, the daily record of the House and Senate, and many agency publications and presidential documents were also included. For more information on the serial set published by the Government Printing Office, including a detailed description of the Serial Set and its history, click here. Many of the indexes listed below cover publications which were formerly part of the Serial Set but are now published separately.

Other sources of congressional information include the House and Senate Journals, which are the official record of the actions of Congress. They do not include text of debates, but do include votes and actions on bills and resolutions. Each Journal has its own index. For edited texts of debates and speeches made on the floor of the House and Senate after 1873, you must consult the Congressional Record. It also has its own index. Before 1873, debates are included or summarized in the Annals of Congress, Register of Debates, and the Congressional Globe. The Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service can also be an important source of Congressional information. Since 1914, it has been providing summaries of proposed legislation, analysis of policy issues, and other materials to Congress to aid it in considering legislation.

How can I find historical congressional information?

There is no one index or catalog which covers all congressional material, and there are significant differences in format, coverage and ease of use between indexes covering the same range of dates. Some indexes are commercially published while others were published by the U.S. government. Often, a catalog must be consulted to locate a document in the Serial Set after the congress, session and title of the document is identified in a subject index. Therefore, thorough searchers should look at each index which includes documents from the dates they are interested in.

Because some of these volumes have confusingly similar names, many of them have commonly used nicknames. Click on an index or primary source to access a description of each in the table below:

Chronological Access to Subject Indexes

DATES INDEXES
1774-1788 Poore, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html).
1789-1817 Greeley, CIS Serial Set Index, Poore, Congressional Masterfile, Congressional Record, House and Senate Journals, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html).
1817-1821 Poore, Tables, Congressional Masterfile, CIS Serial Set IndexCongressional RecordHouse and Senate JournalsAmerican Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html).
1821-1830 PooreTables, Congressional Masterfile, CIS Serial Set IndexCongressional RecordHouse and Senate JournalsAmerican Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html).
1830-1833 Poore, Tables, Congressional MasterfileCIS Serial Set Index, Congressional RecordHouse and Senate JournalsAmerican Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html).
1833-1873 Poore, Tables, CIS Serial Set Index, CIS Prints Index, CIS Hearings IndexCongressional Masterfile, Congressional RecordHouse and Senate JournalsAmerican Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html).
1874-1881 Poore, TablesCIS Serial Set Index, CIS Prints IndexCIS Hearings Index, Congressional MasterfileCongressional RecordHouse and Senate Journals
1881-1885 Ames, Tables, CIS Serial Set Index, CIS Prints Index, CIS Hearings Index, Congressional MasterfileCongressional RecordHouse and Senate Journals
1885-1893 Ames, Hickox, TablesCIS Serial Set IndexCIS Prints IndexCIS Hearings Index, Congressional Masterfile, Congressional RecordHouse and Senate Journals
1893-1895 Document Catalog, Hickox, CIS Serial Set IndexCIS Prints Index, CIS Hearings Index , Congressional Masterfile, Congressional RecordHouse and Senate Journals
1895-1909 Document Catalog, Monthly CatalogCIS Serial Set IndexCIS Prints Index, CIS Hearings Index Congressional MasterfileCongressional RecordHouse and Senate Journals
1909-1915 Document CatalogMonthly Catalog, CIS Serial Set Index, CIS Prints Index , CIS Hearings Index, Congressional MasterfileCongressional RecordHouse and Senate Journals
1916-1939 Document Catalog, Monthly Catalog, CIS Serial Set IndexCIS Prints Index, CIS Hearings IndexCongressional Masterfile, CRS Index, Congressional Record, House and Senate Journals, PAIS
1940-1969 Monthly Catalog, CIS Serial Set IndexCIS Prints IndexCIS Hearings Index, Congressional MasterfileCRS Index, Congressional RecordHouse and Senate Journals, PAIS
1969-present Monthly Catalog, CIS/AnnualCRS Index, ProQuest Congressional, Congressional RecordHouse and Senate Journals, PAIS
1989-present Congressional Record on Thomas (http://thomas.loc.gov)
1994-present Monthly Catalog on-line  (http://catalog.gpo.gov/F )
1995-present FDsys, committee reports on Thomas (http://thomas.loc.gov)

 

Is any of this information available on the Internet?

The Serial Set and most of the indexes used to access it are not freely available on the Internet, with the exception of the 1909 Checklist. Many individual documents have been digitized, and there are some subject bibliographies available on the Web, including the Library of Congress's American Memory Project, which digitized many historical congressional documents in its "A Century of American Lawmaking" collection.  The UIUC Library subscribes to an online version of the Serial Set that is accessible via the library's Online Journals & Databases page.

Since the early 1990's, congressional information has been published on the Internet directly. FDsys, the U.S. government's digital library, includes a list of legislative information available on the Internet and the dates available for each source. The online Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Documents also links to the full text of documents available on the Internet, but only goes back to 1994. More than 500,000 records generated since July 1976 are contained in the CGP and it is updated daily. MoCat 1895-1976 (via ProQuest) makes all issues of the Monthly Catalog from 1895 to June 1976 available online, both as keyed full text records and as page images of the original printed catalog. Proquest Congressional, a subscription service accessible only through libraries that pay a fee, provides the full text of legislation and related documents and goes back to the 1970's in some cases. Finally, Thomas, the Library of Congress's legislative database, provides the full text of congressional information from the early to mid 1990's.

Where can I find the information I need if it is not on the Internet?

If your library is not a depository library and does not have the Serial Set or the indexes discussed on these pages, you can search the Government Printing Office's online Monthly Catalog for the Serial Set and click on "Locate Libraries" on the results screen to find a library near you that has the volume you are interested in. Entering "serial set" as a keyword search produces 40 results with the most relevant listed first. Just as an illustration, a search of area code 217 in the Locate Libraries screen shows three libraries which have the U.S. Serial Set, and the information given includes a phone number and a link to each library's on-line catalog so users can make sure that the library has volumes covering the time period they are interested in and search for the indexes they need (the indexes themselves are not in the Monthly Catalog because they were published before 1994, when the catalog went on-line).

Also, there are several excellent print guides to accessing U.S. government information which are available in most depository libraries. For example, look for:

Morehead, Joe. Introduction to United States Public Documents, 3rd ed. Littleton, Col.: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1983.

Sears, Jean L. and Moody, Marilyn M. Using Government Publications, 2nd ed. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1994.

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Mary Mallory, Coordinator, Government Information Services, Access and Collections, University Library

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