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 consult the Government Printing Office’s resource: US Congressional Serial Set What is It and Its History. 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:
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.