Every Congress accumulates a veritable ocean of words: in resolutions made, hearings held, and legislation introduced and sometimes passed. From when the very first Congress opened on March 4, 1789, then in Federal Hall in New York City, to the current Congressional session opened on January 3, 2019, documents and records have been piling up. Now that content is data — virtual and weightless — it is hard to imagine the vast and unruly mass accumulated over 230 years’ worth (and counting) of Congressional matters under consideration: bills, reports, records of hearings, maps of boundaries and territories, drafts, and treaties, select executive and agency documents, odd-ball records (such as reports on rivers and harbors 1817-1982), and some interspersed annual reports of various non-governmental organizations, such the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, DAR, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Smithsonian.
“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, December 8, 1813)
For an excellent further discussion of the history and evolution of the Serial Set, see: https://www.fdlp.gov/about-fdlp/mission-history/u-s-congressional-serial-set-what-it-is-and-its-history.
Its name — Serial Set — is a nod to the process of organizing congressional history as it unfurls, through a serial identification system that consecutively numbers every document from each congressional session. Even with this numbered identification system, the sheer quantity and mix of types of materials can daunt or delight any researcher. While legal researchers may be intent in building out a legislative history (see Singer, Statutes and Statutory Construction §§48:31-48:3 for an extensive discussion of use of legislative history as an extrinsic aid to interpretation of a statute), other researchers may turn to the Serial Set for other explorations, such as genealogical research, research into environment change, or assessments of social and political history through the details of the records collected over this entire historical period. Due to the enormity of the task, full digitization with advanced search functions has been a wish more than a promise.
Open source sites, such as committee reports collected on Congress.gov (93rd Congress, 1973-1974 forward) or other core congressional materials on www.govinfo.gov (104th Congress, 1995-1996 forward), offer a first bite, with excellent collections of relatively recent materials, but thin out quickly as time spools backwards. Microfiche, for anyone who has arduously wound through the pages one by one, is hardly the answer any researcher wants to hear.
The full print Serial Set is said to take up more than 15,000 thick bound volumes with an ever-growing density, Congress to Congress. On HeinOnline, the entire framework fits on one screen, containing these subsets:
• American State Papers: 1st-25th Congress (1789-1838)
• Congressional Serial Set: 15th-113th Congress (1817-2014)
• Congressional Documents: 114th-115th Congress (2015-2019)
• Congressional Reports 114th-115th Congress (2015-2019)
The HeinOnline Serial Set database, launched at the end of 2018, is better considered an archive under construction. Phase I provides a complete index of all congressional documents across the full date range of the Serial Set (1789-2018), along with full-text content of the most recent 40 years, 1978-2018. The indexing element is a useful research stepping stone, since the Serial Set identification number can be one key in helping to locate a document in the morass. Ongoing development of a complete archive of full-text content is in the works, with a projected addition of a million pages a year until the full congressional date range of materials are entirely available and searchable. The Serial Set database fits well with other HeinOnline libraries of gnarly federal materials archives, such as earlier editions of the U.S. Code (from 1925 forward), and archives of the Federal Register (1936 – forward) and CFR (1938 – forward), expanding the ways and means of accessing these materials.
Stay tuned for more posts on the Serial Set and congressional records in the coming weeks.