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US Government Documents Fundamentals

A guide to basic information about finding, evaluating, and using government documents for assignments, research, and your own information.

Help with historical documents

At WSU see "Ask a Question" options or e-mail:

Lorena O'English, Social Sciences and Government Information Librarian


Law Library of Congress  How do I Find....?

Law Librarian's Society of D.C.  Questions and Answers in Legislative and Regulatory Research


The history of the United States and its government is richly documented in government publications from the earliest times to the present. The Washington State University Libraries were granted selective depository status in 1907 but have a government documents collection that reaches back to the beginning of the United States.  Locating documents is not always straightforward but with improved online searching tools and electronic full-text availability it has become easier to find the documents you need. 

For assistance:

  • see "Help with Historical Documents" in the left column
  • or--link to the Ask a Question page for a list of help alternatives

Government documents received from 1976 forward were entered into the Libraries' catalog, Search It.

For pre-1976 documents try searching the catalog because many older documents are being digitized and cataloged.  If the item for which you are searching is not in the catalog, 1)  use a catalog, index, or finding aid (see the suggestions on this LibGuide) to get the title, authoring agency, year, and other pertinent information; 2) ask a reference librarian for help in finding the document(s) in our tangible collection, in electronic format, or through interlibrary loan.   

For help finding Congressional documents such as bills, hearings, reports, and legislative histories use the guide, "United States Congressional Publications in WSU Libraries."  See the lists and links below for detailed assistance.

Major Online Sources of Historical Documents

Core Documents of United States Democracy  The Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Emancipation Proclamation, and other fundamental documents of the country. 

govinfo  (dates vary)  GPO's federal digital system, an archive and full-text source for publications from the three branches of government.  Older materials are being added continuously.

ProQuest Congressional  (dates vary) (WSU only)  U.S. Congressional publications including hearings, bill text, legislative histories, voting records, calendars, and more.  Congressional publications searchable from 1789- ; legislative histories, bills, laws searchable from 1980's-774-1789  Library of Congress American Memory: Historical Documents   Searches early congressional documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and Other Amendments.

U.S. Congressional Serial Set  (1817-1994; WSU Only)  All the Reports, Documents, and Journals of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. A rich source of primary source material on all aspects of American history.


1774-1789  Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention 1774-1789    A segment of the Library of Congress' American Memory Collection; items include extracts of the journals of Congress, resolutions, proclamations, committee reports, treaties, and early printed versions of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, all searchable.
1774-1873  A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation; U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates 1774-1873    The records and acts of Congress from the Journal of the Continental Congress through The Congressional Globe, which ceased publciation with the 42nd Congress in 1873.  All text is searchable.
1789-1838   American State Papers (WSU only)  Congressional materials from the first 14 Congresses (1789-1817) and some years beyond, full-text searchable.
1817-1994    U.S. Congressional Serial Set (WSU only)      Beginning with the 15th Congress through the 103rd Congress, full-text search access to House and Senate Reports and Documents is available. The database is searchable by keyword and by subjects such as education, health, food and agriculture, Indian affairs, science & technology, and social issues. 
1817-1969   U.S. Congressional Serial Set Finding List    Connects Serial Set volume numbers to specific SuDocs numbers from the 15th to the 91st Congresses. Agency annual reports and other serials are listed with their SuDoc and corresponding Serial Set numbers. Includes additional links to Serial Set resources.
1817-1969   U.S. Congressional Serial Set Inventory     A complete inventory of serial set holdings in U.S. libraries, from v. 1- v. 12879-1.
1873-current    Table of Congressional Publication Volumes and Presidential Issuances    A numeric guide to Serial Set volumes by Congress published by the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.

Indexes and Finding Aids

1774-1881    Poore, Benjamin Perley    Descriptive Catalogue of the Government Publications of the United States, Sept. 5, 1774-March 4, 1881.    Washington: Government Printing Office, 1885.  Continued by Ames' Comprehensive Index to the Publications of the United States Government, 1881-1893 and by the Catalogue of Public Documents, 53d- Congress, 1893- .  Holland Ref Doc Y 4.P93/1:G74/1

1789-1909    Checklist of United States Public Documents, 1789-1909.    3rd ed., New York:  Kraus Reprint Corp., 1962 (Reprint of 3rd ed., GPO 1911).  1st-60th Congress.  complete checklist (in SuDoc number order) of judicial, executive, and legislative public documents issues by the U.S. Government.  Terrell Reference Z1223.A11  1962

1789-      CIS U.S. Serial Set Index    Beginning with the American State Papers in 1789 and including the index and carto-bibliography of maps, 1789-1969. Terrell Reference Z1223.Z7 U55   OnlineU.S. Congressional Serial Set (WSU only)

1830-1969     CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Prints Index.    Washington:  Congressional Information Service, Inc., 1980.  21st-91st Congress.  Terrell Reference J74.C66x 1980

1833-1969     CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Hearings Index.   Washington:  Congressional Information Service, Inc., 1981-85.  23rd-91st Congress.  "Congressional committee hearings proceedings were first heald early in the 19th century and became a major component in the deliverative work of Congress during the years following the Civil War." --Introduction.  Terrell Reference KF49.C62 U5

1875-1990     Congressional Record Index.    Washington:  GPO, 1874.  43rd-101st Congress.  The proceedings of Congress.  Terrell Reference Doc X

1881-93     Ames, John G.     Comprehensive Index to the Publications of the United States Government, 1881-1893.   Washington:  GPO, 1905, 2 vol.  Terrell Reference Doc Y4745, Y4746

1893-1940     Catalogue of the Public Documents of the (53rd-76th) Congress and of All Departments of the Government of the United States for the Period from Mr. 4, 1893 to Dec. 31, 1940.    Washington:  GPO.  25 vol.  Terrell Reference Doc GP 3.6

1900-     Monthly Catalog of the United States Government Publications.    Washington:  GPO, 1895-  .  An index to Congressional publications, judiciary materials, and documents issued by executive agencies.  Terrell Reference Doc GP 3.8 (1900-1998);  Online Catalog of U.S. Government Publications

1900-1971      Cumulative Subject Index to the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications, 1900-1971.     Arlington, VA: Carrollton Press, Inc., 1973-95.  Terrell Reference Z1223.Z7 B9

1941-1970     United States Government Publications Monthly Catalog:  Quinquennial Cumulative Personal Author Index.     Ann Arbor, MI: Pierian Press, 1971-79.  Terrell Reference Doc GP 3.8/a

1951-2002     Congressional Index.    Chicago: Commerce Clearing House, 1937- .  (1951-2002, 82nd-107th Congress).  Terrell Reference J69.C6

1970-       CIS Index to Publications of the United States Congress.     Washington: Congressional Information Service, 1970- . 91st Congress.  Terrell Reference Z1223.Z7 C6;  Online ProQuest Congressional (WSU only)

ProQuest Congressional  (dates vary)  U.S. Congressional publications including hearings, bill text, legislative histories, voting records, calendars, and more.  Congressional publications searchable from 1789- ; legislative histories, bills, laws searchable from 1980's-

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