A Brief History of the FDLP

FDLP History and Mission

The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) has been part of the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) (formerly Government Printing Office) since 1895, providing Government information to libraries serving the need of people across the Nation for information by and about their Federal Government.

Congress first authorized the distribution of one copy of the House and Senate Journals and other Congressional documents to certain universities, historical societies, and state libraries in an act of 1813, with the Secretary of State responsible for distribution.

Arrangements for printing and distributing documents were reformed and re-ordered numerous times, with varying success. In 1860, legislation was approved to establish a Government Printing Office under the direction of a Superintendent of Public Printing, ending decades of waste and abuse in printing by private firms. The new GPO began work on the same day Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, March 4, 1861.

Originally, GPO’s sole responsibility was printing, primarily for Congress. Distribution of documents was a chaotic and largely ad hoc process, with individual agencies, members of Congress, and Congressional committees all playing roles. In 1869, a Superintendent of Public Documents was created in the Interior Department with responsibility for dissemination of public documents as well as the oversight of Congressional printing. 

In 1895 Congress overhauled existing printing laws and created a number of new authorities for GPO. This Printing Act reformed the basic rules for obtaining materials for printing and setting charges for agencies and expanded GPO's authority in law to print for all three branches of Government. It also expanded GPO's responsibility beyond printing and binding to dissemination of Government information, by transferring the responsibilities of Superintendent of Documents to GPO and creating a separate appropriation for its work.

The law directs that Government publications will be disseminated through three channels: deposit in designated libraries; distribution to select Government entities such as Congress, the White House, and the Library of Congress; and sale. It is from the provisions for deposit in designated libraries that the FDLP of today was born.

Alongside dissemination responsibilities, Congress gave GPO far-reaching responsibility for organizing Government information, with provision for a program of cataloging and indexing that remains integral to the GPO mission.

Francis A. Crandall, a newspaperman from Buffalo, New York became the first GPO Superintendent of Documents in 1895. Under his leadership a massive accumulation of documents, stretching nearly to the founding of the Nation, was collected from across the Government and put in order by GPO's first corps of librarians, including Adelaide R. Hasse, who developed the basis of a provenance-based library classification, Superintendent of Documents Classification, still in use today. Hasse worked tirelessly to turn the accumulated documents, as well as the flood of new publications, into a well-organized library which supported and complimented the statutory activities of cataloging, deposit, and sale. One of Hasse's colleagues (later one of Crandall's successors as Superintendent) was William Leander Post, credited with the development of Hasse's outline into a working classification system.

In 1895 there were 420 designated depository libraries, each required to hold at least 1,000 other books or documents and to agree to make depository materials freely available to the public. The first depository shipment, on July 17, 1895, contained eleven Congressional publications.

Initially, all depository libraries received all new publications printed by GPO and meeting the other criteria in law for distribution as public documents. In 1923, following a period of tremendous growth in the Government's production of information, libraries began to select categories of publications, based on a standardized list. With the introduction of selectivity, only 48 of 418 depositories selected all available publications, causing concern that some areas might be underserved.

In 1962, Congress approved a substantial revision of the portions of the 1895 act governing depository libraries. The Depository Library Act of 1962 increased the number of possible depository library designations per congressional district to two and permitted designation for libraries in Federal agencies. Most significantly, it established two categories of libraries within the program: regional (a designation in each state, named by Senators), which would receive all publications in the program and retain them permanently; and selective, which could choose what to receive and discard unwanted documents after a set period. It also took the important step of expanding the scope of the program to include publications not printed by GPO.  

These two changes profoundly influenced the FDLP in the years that followed. The first substantially increased the size of the program, both in terms of its reach and the resources required to administer it. The second created a mandate for the program to include publications that have proved in many cases to be difficult to track down and distribute, and significantly enlarged not only acquisition activities but the cataloging and indexing program as well. High on the list of documents that were of concern in 1962 were research and development reports from the many technical agencies such as the Energy Department and the Atomic Energy Commission that hired contractors for research. These significantly improved the public's access to taxpayer-funded research.

Over the next two decades, the FDLP grew, first as a result of the 1962 act, and later with additional statutory changes that brought the highest appellate court in each state (1972) and the libraries of accredited law schools (1978) into the program. From just under 600 in 1960, the number of depository libraries grew to 1,300 in the early 1980s.

GPO's entire history has been one of continuous adaptation to technological change. In the early years, this focused on the production side of the house with vast improvements to press efficiency and bindery capabilities and the introduction of typesetting machines in 1904 which rapidly transformed GPO to a fully industrial print shop.

Technology began to play a transformative role in dissemination in the mid-20th century when, alongside the expanding scope of the program, discussions began about the conversion of printed documents to microform. Funds began to be authorized in the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, many depository libraries saw a considerable percentage of their annual receipts in micofiche.

The shift to microfiche, however, was far less significant than the wave of change that followed. The broader shift to digital technology began in the early 1970s when GPO began to set type using computers. The first electronic publications included in the FDLP were Census Bureau publications issued on CD-ROM starting in 1989. In 1993, Congress approved the GPO Access Act (P.L. 103-40). It authorized GPO to operate an "electronic storage facility" and locator service for a core of Congressional documents and gave the Superintendent of Documents broad discretion to include other agencies' electronic titles. GPO introduced GPO Access in 1994, which took advantage of the fact that most Congressional publications were already being created digitally. The digital publications derived from the printing files were made available on GPO Access and were joined in the next few years by a wide variety of publications from other agencies.

In this same period, GPO ventured further into the world of the Internet with a "bulletin board" service that made information about the FDLP and other agencies available electronically. In 1999, GPO launched its educational website for children, Ben’s Guide to the U.S. Government.

As GPO developed its ability to disseminate Government information online, the Superintendent of Documents sought methods to provide more and better access electronically. GPO began using the database operated by OCLC, Inc. for the creation of cataloging records in 1976, and within a short time made the production of the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications all digital. OCLC cataloging records were converted by GPO-created systems into copy for the printed Monthly Catalog.

In 2003, GPO implemented an online public access catalog (OPAC), again based on records created using OCLC. The OPAC gained functionality and refinements, and in 2006, GPO's Congressional oversight committee approved a conversion from the printed Monthly Catalog required in statute to the online Catalog of United States Government Publications (CGP). The CGP includes descriptive information for historical and current publications and direct links to online documents. GPO subsequently made its cataloging records available directly to depository libraries for inclusion in local catalogs and discovery systems.

In January 2009, GPO unveiled its second generation of online information access, replacing GPO Access with its Federal Digital System (FDsys). FDsys featured more robust searching and browsing and provided assurance that content was authenticated as official Government information. FDsys incorporated functionality for management of digital documents for both public retrieval and permanent preservation.

In 2018, FDsys made way for GovInfowith improved searching and expanded offerings including a wide variety of digitized historical publications available in searchable electronic form.

In the late 1990s, the FDLP recognized that the statutory obligations of the program for providing permanent public access to in-scope Government information were shifting as publications became increasingly digital. In 1999, the FDLP published a Collection Development Plan for electronic publications and began to seek agreements with depository libraries for assuring preservation of access and of underlying digital data. The first major partnership to assure preservation of online resources was the "Cybercemetery" project at the University of North Texas Libraries, which provides ongoing access to the online information of defunct Government agencies. Subsequent activity in the program has moved preservation of digital Government information to the forefront of FDLP concerns.

In the first decade of the 21st century, libraries found themselves in a dynamic and radically changed environment. 2014 saw the designation of Sitting Bull College Library in North Dakota, followed closely by DePaul University Library in 2015, as all-digital Federal depository libraries. Since that time, a significant number of existing depository libraries have ceased to select any tangible publications and many new libraries have joined the program as all-digital. The FDLP seeks to provide libraries with flexibility in their continued participation in the FDLP and an expanded range of training and support to keep locating and using Government information a vital part of their service offerings.

The FDLP Mission today

Today, the FDLP continues to coordinate distribution of tangible Government documents to the nearly 1,150 Federal depository libraries across the U.S. and its territories; provide high-quality searching, access, and retrieval to a wide variety of online information; and provide bibliographic control for all Government information within its statutory scope. With state-of-the-art systems, GPO is making a wider array of current information than ever freely accessible and is working to digitize retrospective Federal documents from across the Government.

The FDLP will continue to support its depository libraries in meeting new challenges to provide expert assistance, broad access to collections of both tangible and digital documents, and innovative solutions for preserving access to Government information into the future.

Sources Consulted

  • Brown, Garrett, E. et. al. Legislative Histories of the Laws Affecting the U.S. Government Printing Office as Codified in Title 44 of the U.S. Code. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1982)
  • Kling, Robert E., Jr. The Government Printing Office. (New York: Praeger, 1970)
  • Morehead, Joe. Introduction to United States Public Documents. 3rd edition. (Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1983)
  • Schmeckebier, Laurence F. and Roy B. Eastin. Government Publications and Their Use. 2nd revised edition. (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1969)
  • S. Government Printing Office. 100 GPO Years 1861-1961: A History of United States Public Printing. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1961.
  • S. Government Publishing Office. Keeping America Informed: The U.S. Government Publishing Office, a Legacy of Service to the Nation, 1861-2016. (Washington: Government Publishing Office, 2016)