American Library Association
Government Documents Round Table

Cataloging Committee

To GODORT Homepage

Cataloging Pre-1976 U.S. Government Publications:
Stakeholders and Strategies

ALA Midwinter Conference, New Orleans, LA.
Sunday, Jan. 11, 1998
2:00-4:00 pm
Hilton Riverside and Towers
Marborough B

Panel Participants:

Jan Swanbeck, University of Florida
Marda Johnson, Director of the Collection and Technical Services Division, OCLC
Dan Coyle, Director of Electronic Publishing, Congressional Information Service
Carolyn Kohler, University of Iowa
Tim Byrne, University of Colorado, Boulder
Arlene Weible, GODORT Cataloging Committee Chair, Moderator

**This is not a transcript. Instead, this document provides highlights of the major issues addressed during the panel discussion. If you’d like further information, please contact any of the panel participants listed above.


The panel discussion was convened by the GODORT Cataloging Committee on behalf of the document information community to describe the status of cataloging the pre-1976 U.S. Government publications. In addition, the Committee was seeking feedback towards the support of on-going work in this area.

History of Projects

1983 - Grant Proposal/ Marcive Project -- Information from Jan Swanbeck

Judy Myers (University of Houston) and Carol Turner (then at Stanford University) attempted to get a grant to:

  • create a loadable tape product for existing GPO cataloging records
  • catalog the pre-1976 publications
Though they had many letters of support for their grant , including one from the Library of Congress, the grant was not funded. They ended up doing the first part of the project with support from Marcive.

At the University of Florida, patron usage increased up to 400% for documents after the GPO tape load. They learned that a project of this type needs a very broad base of support from vendors and libraries.

1989 - University of Kentucky (et. al.) project -- Information from Carolyn Kohler

Sandee McAninch, from University of Kentucky, worked with librarians from Yale, Clemson, Brigham Young, and Texas A&M to design a project to catalog the pre-1976 U.S. publications in those five library's collections. Their plan was to conduct research to determine the scope of the project, and discover the resources available. They planned to write a grant for the remainder of what was needed. To achieve this, they surveyed their collections to create a comprehensive union list and to determine what source material was available at each institution so that they could divide up the work.

In this survey, they found 26,771 items from the Department of the Interior (of those, over 2700 were held in only one of the five libraries), 2136 items from the Smithsonian (of those, over 540 were held in only one of the five libraries),  and XX for the Department of Agriculture (the numbers still need to be totaled), of those over 3250 were held in only one of the five libraries.  This does not cover all the items that were on the microfilmed version of the GPO shelflist, Checklist of U.S. Public Documents, 1789-1976. Sandee estimated that there were 109,200 Department of Agriculture, 100,800 Department of the Interior and 12,600 documents from the Smithsonian on the GPO shelflist.  In light of the actual totals of what was still on the shelves, she has said that her estimates from the GPO shelflist were probably high, so this needs to be investigated further.

They also proposed that the GODORT Cataloging Committee conduct a survey of depositories to find out who was interested and willing to contribute to the project. The survey also asked what strategy (by agency or by year) librarians thought should be used. In 1990, Sandee McAninch worked with the Cataloging Committee to complete the survey, and preliminary results are available. They had completed most of the research and were ready for the grant writing when some of the institutions had staffing changes which brought the group's work to a standstill.

1995 - Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) - Information from Carolyn Kohler

CIC is a consortia that includes the Big Ten plus Penn. State, University of Chicago and University of Illinois at Chicago. The CIC institutions are working towards a clearer definition of the pre-1976 cataloging problem, with the hope of developing some solutions.

In 1995, CIC conducted a survey of pre-1976 cataloging. Their strategic plan mandated creating a pre-1976 bibliographic record set as a CIC cataloging resource. In Feb. 1996 a group including two documents librarians (Carolyn Kohler and  Julia Wallace), two directors (Larry Woods and Charlene Mason) and two catalogers (Sue Zuriff and Mary Noble) met.  This group's activities have included:

  • Review of existing projects
  • Began initial talk with vendors, including Marcive and CIS.
  • Developed standards for MARC records, and worked with CIS to develop standards for their current cataloging projects.
  • Tried to identify individuals who might have cleaner copies of the microfilmed GPO shelflist.
  • Explored alternatives to GPO shelflist, including collections of old shipping lists. (One possible source: University of Nebraska)
  • Explored pilot project possibilities, including proposal from the National Agriculture Library. This proposal has not been pursued because it became too complicated for a pilot project.
The group has now transformed into an official Government Documents Task Force. Its membership is pursuing the following goals:
  • To find a cost effective way to acquire, develop, or provide access to these records
  • To perform a more thorough survey of vendors
  • To perform a more thorough examination of existing and projected coverage of documents in CIC institutions and others
  • To review the level and quality of the records for the pre-1976 documents and review source material
  • To consider expanding the project beyond CIC
  • Determine if they can build on the work of the group spearheaded by Sandee McAninch.

1996 - Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries (The Alliance formerly known as CARL) - Information from Tim Byrne

With the sale of the CARL Corp. and the Uncover Company, the Alliance has invested much of the proceeds and is using the interest to fund shared resources for Alliance member libraries. Two years ago, the government publications librarians at Colorado State University (CSU), Denver Public Library (DPL) and University of Colorado (CU) put together a proposal for retrospective cataloging for federal documents. They requested $250,000 per year for a three year period, hiring one original cataloger and 2 copy catalogers at each of the three libraries. There turned out to be less money available than was originally believed. The proposal was resubmitted the following year, this time asking for $80,000 to place one library technician in each of the three libraries to do copy cataloging. Each library would begin work on one agency:

  • Fish and Wildlife Service - CSU
  • U.S. Geological Survey - DPL
  • War Dept - CU

Their strategy would be to work on these departments separately and then to share tapes of the records and do an item conversion project. They hoped that the $80,000 might be used as seed money as matching funds for other grants.

Update since Midwinter
The proposal generated a good deal of support. At the time of the Midwinter Discussion Panel, the decision on what proposals to fund had not been made. Ultimately, the cataloging proposal was not ranked high enough in the final vote, although funding was approved for the CIS Congressional Compass and StatUSA. However, there is still strong interest in a retrospective cataloging project and a new proposal has been requested for the Alliance Council meeting in April 1998.

Even without the requested funding, there will be some activities done that will increase access to government publications. The CARL Government Publications Database has been a resource for librarians worldwide. The Alliance is working to expand the scope of the database beyond just the GPO cataloging. The pre-1976 and non-depository cataloging done at the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and Denver Public Library will be added to the database. Additionally, the Alliance will be loading the cataloging records for the CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Hearings, 1833-1969. The plan is to continue loading retrospective cataloging records into the Government Publications Database as the records become available.

The CARL Government Publications Database can be accessed via telnet at and selecting file #83. The CARL Corp. has a web version at Select Library and Information Databases. Select U.S. Government Publications.

What is the scope of work to be done?

Based on various sources it is estimated that the total number of pre-1976 depository publications varies from 800,000 to 1,000,000. Consideration should also be given to the significant number of non-depository publications in library collections, but it would be extremely difficult to estimate the number.

How much has been done?

In 1992, the University of Kentucky (et. al.) project took a 10% sampling of the GPO shelflist to determine hit rates in OCLC's WorldCat database. They found about 50%, but the record quality was uneven. Results were as follows:

Dept. of Agriculture Active 11%
Dead 41%
Dept. of the Interior Active  59%
Dead 24%
Smithsonian Active 59%
Dead 24%
Congressional Hearings 83%

Marda Johnson indicated that some of the pre-1976 monographic series have been cataloged as part of the OCLC's WorldCat Collections Sets Program (formerly known as Major Microforms Sets). Relevant sets include; Early American Imprints, National Resources Planning Board, Confederate Imprints, Native American Legal Materials and the Native American Reference Collection.

Johnson also reported the results of a quick search of OCLC’s WorldCat database she conducted in preparation for this program. The search was based on the following criteria:

  • use of code f (federal publication) in the Government Publication fixed field of the bibliographic record
  • Country of publication: United States.
  • publication date prior to 1976.
She found 419,000 records. Some of these would have been for non-depository materials. Her purpose was to get a general idea of the number, not to do a comprehensive search. She distributed charts illustrating the characteristics of these records.

Dan Coyle reported that CIS has created MARC records, mostly following AACR2, for access to their microfiche sets. The CIS retrospective catalog projects include:
Microfiche: MARC records created:
Congress (1790- 1970-
US Congressional Committee Public Hearings (1830 - 1830-
US Congressional Committee Prints (1830- 1970-
Senate / House Unpublished Hearings (1830's- none
Senate Exec. Docs. Reports (1817- 1970-
Executive Branch Documents for Departments of : Treasury, Commerce and Labor  (1789-1909) 1789-1909
Executive Branch Documents for Departments of: War, Interior, Justice, Labor (1789-1909) none- scheduled to be done in 1998
Executive Branch Documents for Departments of : Agriculture, Navy, State and others (1789-1909) none- scheduled to be done in 1999
Executive Branch Documents (1910-     
Scheduled to be filmed in 2002
none-scheduled to be done in 2003
  Note: These dates are slightly different from the dates shown in the chart distributed at the panel discussion.  They are from a telephone conversation  between Dan Coyle and Jill Vassilakos-Long that took place  on 1/25/98.  JVL

CIS has a number of other databases which include MARC records- Environmental Abstracts, U.S. Government Periodicals, and the U.S. Serial Set. However, the records for the Serial Set are so skeletal that they cannot be considered full catalog records.

Strategies for retrospective conversion projects

Some projects have started with a photocopy of the microfilm Checklist of U.S. Public Documents, 1789-1976, known as the GPO shelflist . There are concerns about the readability and accuracy of this resource.

Other groups have started with the shelflist of the most complete collection, and added unique items from other collections. Other suggestions were using the Monthly Catalog; possibly dividing the project among participants by year.

Another possibility is using depository shipping lists. The University of Nebraska and possibly some other libraries have complete sets, and they should accurately reflect everything that was shipped.

The pros and cons of adopting an "agency approach" vs. a "chronological approach" for organizing a project were discussed. Using some of the tools, such as the GPO shelflist, Monthly Catalog, or shipping lists, would organize the work by date. But many projects have taken an agency approach because of local interest and collection strengths. Digitizing projects are good prospects for grants, but it would have to be clear that funds be reserved for cataloging work.

Four areas of concern were mentioned:

  • doing a comprehensive job
  • avoiding duplication of efforts in current projects
  • making the most efficient use of the records that already exist
  • creating records that can be pulled together into a tape product that can be loaded into local catalogs


Marda Johnson stated that OCLC would be willing to work with a group of libraries on a project. One option may be to designate a symbol for a record group, which could be added to all new records. Records that are already in OCLC could be enhanced with the new symbol by libraries with enhance capabilities. This would create a tag that could be used to pull the records together, facilitating future creation of a tape-loadable product.

Dan Coyle stated that CIS would be willing to loan out source microfiche to libraries taking part in a cataloging project.

The Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries is working on broadening the scope of their Government Publications Database. They plan on acquiring records for the CIS Committee Prints and loading those records. It is possible to telnet directly to this database. There is a web version, but SuDoc numbers do not display.

Where do we go from here?

Many people from the audience asked how they could be of help. People have seen how use skyrockets once document holdings are reflected in on-line catalogs and there was a lot of excitement at the prospect of a retrospective conversion project. Even librarians whose libraries had very limited holdings expressed the desire that the publications would be cataloged and holdings listed on OCLC so that it would be possible to determine what existed and who owned it.

A consensus was reached that the GODORT Cataloging Committee should conduct a survey, gathering information about:

  • What cataloging has been completed and by whom?
  • Where do the records reside?
  • What should be the next initiative(s)?
  • Who would volunteer to help with these initiatives?

This survey could possibly be distributed by GPO through depository boxes and posted on appropriate listservs. The survey results, on-going updates, and contact information would be maintained on the GODORT Cataloging Committee’s web site so that it could be used as a clearinghouse for this type of information.

**Note from the GODORT Cataloging Committee Chair
The survey project mentioned in the summary has been added to the Committee's agenda, with hopes that a survey will be ready by the ALA annual conference in June, 1998. Information about the survey will be distributed via GOVDOC-L and other listservs, as well as the Committee's web page.

Jill Vassilakos-Long, recorder
Please send corrections to Arlene Weible

Return to Cataloging Committee Home Page

Last updated: 3-17-98