Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Sept. 6, 2012 Volume 34, No. 3

MU Libraries celebrates 150 years of being a U.S. government depository

Alternate text

ROWS OF DOCUMENTS Marie Concannon, shown in Ellis Library, is the government documents regional director. MU Libraries houses 1.7 million federal works as part of the Federal Depository Library Program. Rob Hill photo


Collection utilized by scholars, students and the public

MU Libraries has a treasure trove of rare and important works. But not all are part of Special Collections and Rare Books, which number in the tens of thousands.

Interested in a first-person account of an 1860s government-funded Arctic expedition? Curious about remarks made at the first session of the U.S. Congress in 1789? Want an off-the-record transcript of John F. Kennedy discussing the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis? 

All that and more is sitting on bookshelves in Ellis Library. Books, pamphlets, periodicals and journals that might evoke a surface yawn to most readers come to life when the pages are turned. Judging a book by its bland cover and perfunctory titles — like The Foreign Relations of the United States, The U.S. Congressional Serial Set and Selective Service in Wartime simply doesn’t work with this collection, though typically you have to dig a little to find the gold.

“They are the ultimate primary source to what was going on then,” said Marie Concannon, government documents regional director. “It’s like looking at history through a microscope.”

Don’t judge a book by its cover

This year, MU Libraries is celebrating its 150th year as the U.S. federal government’s state regional depository. The library houses 1.7 million federal works as part of this program. 

The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) was created in 1813 to “keep America informed,” as it says in Title 44 of the United States Code, by printing legislative documents for public consumption. It was a time when America’s freedoms as set forth in the Constitution were still fresh in the minds of lawmakers. It made sense to Congress to open its government studies, analysis, hearings, reports and debates to Americans through select public libraries.

MU Libraries joined the FDLP at a volatile time. The Civil War was raging and Boone County residents had strong Confederate sympathies and hostility toward the Union. 

According to the 1860 U.S. Census, Boone County had 885 slaveholders and 5,034 slaves, fourth and third, respectively, among Missouri counties. “It was a brave move by the university to join a federal program at that time considering mid-Missouri’s Confederate leanings,” Concannon said.

Today, more than 1,200 American libraries are part of the depository program. MU was the fifteenth to join, and because it joined so early, it has one of the best early government documents collection in the country. Last May, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-St. Elizabeth) praised the MU catalogue and the 1,200 depository libraries in America during a speech on the House of Representatives floor. 

“Depository libraries still act as the bridge between our nation’s government and its services, offering free access and assistance to interested individuals,” he said. 

Most of MU Libraries’ government collection is on campus. But due to space considerations and document themes that might attract a wider audience elsewhere, tens of thousands of materials are at MU’s partner depositories. Two partners are Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Central Missouri, which stores the collection’s Air Force materials because of its offering aviation classes and its proximity to Whiteman Air Force Base. 

Government documents are generally free of copyright restrictions, yet most from decades past are not yet readily available online. Concannon estimates that less than 10 percent of MU’s vast collection can be found there. 

MU’s collection has both scholarly and practical interest. Researchers in economics use data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Department of Treasury. Political science researchers are interested in the countless documents from Congress. Geology scientists are interested in the U.S. Geological Survey, while engineers request reports from the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation and NASA.

A recent information request to the department involved a Missouri municipality wanting to find out what entity in the 1930s built a flood control wall that broke; the municipality wanted to charge the proper government entity for the repair cost. Another request was from a citizen wanting information on a 1981 tax code relating to an estate, after learning that the Internal Revenue Service didn’t have the record.

Government documents can also entertain and enlighten. “I find it most fulfilling when I can show a person how much there is in government documents about their greatest interest,” Concannon said. A movie fan, for instance, might be interested in the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings on the film industry in 1947 that included combative interviews with actor Ronald Reagan and filmmaker Walt Disney, she said.

‘My heart is red and sweet’

Concannon was randomly flipping through one of the 15,000 volumes of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, published between 1817 and 1980, when she made a remarkable find. 

Buried in an 1883 volume was a report on the condition of a Sioux tribe on a “Territory of the Dakota” reservation. Government officials had set up a committee there and invited the American Indians to speak before it, including the legendary Sitting Bull. 

At the time, the Sioux had been on the reservation for 15 years, after they’d nearly starved from losing their traditional hunting grounds to settlers. The government recorder captured one of the last great acts of defiance by a Native American chief. The council chairman was condescending and dismissive of Sitting Bull, and appeared to fear the power the chief still held over his people on the reservation. The chairman refused to acknowledge Sitting Bull as leader of his people.

Chairman: “I do not know any difference between you and the other Indians at this agency.”

Sitting Bull: “I am here by the will of the Great Spirit; and by his will I am chief. My heart is red and sweet, and I know it is sweet because whatever passes near me puts out its tongue to me. And yet you men have come here to talk with us, and you say you do not know who I am. I want to tell you that if the Great Spirit has chosen anyone to be the chief of this country, it is myself.”

Sitting Bull scolded the committee. “You have conducted yourselves like men who have been drinking whiskey, and I came here to give you some advice.”

With a wave of the chief’s hand, “the Indians left the room in a body,” the government recorder wrote.




• U.S. Congressional Serial Set:

• Proquest