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Genealogical Research in Government Documents: U.S. Congressional Serial Set

This guide tells how to use Federal Depository Library collections for genealogical research


Serial Set
Image courtesy Library of Congress (link)

U.S. Congressional Serial Set

This set of over 15,000 volumes dates back to 1817.  The Serial Set can include citizens’ claims for government compensation, back payments due to them, lists of landowners, pensioners, military officers, inventors and more.  It shows “private acts” to allow special exceptions to the law for individuals experiencing unusual circumstances, letters to Congress from private individuals, petitions to the government signed by many people, the complete Official Records of the War of the Rebellion which show correspondence from officers and detailed activity of military units, plus over 50,000 maps.  Reading the National Archives' Prologue magazine article Using the Congressional Serial Set for Genealogical Research  can be an excellent way to prepare for a trip to a library to use the Serial Set.

The Serial Set was never well indexed until a full text database was made available.  Proquest and Readex both offer a completely searchable full text Serial Set, but not all libraries have access to it.  Proquest's alternate product Heritage Quest Online offers a name-and-place search, but it indexes only a tiny fraction of the complete Serial Set.  For example, a search on the name "Boyle" in the Heritage Quest Online product returns 390 results.  A search on the word "Boyle" in the full text U.S. Congressional Serial Set returns over 5,000 hits.  Heritage Quest Online is available through almost all Missouri public and academic libraries.

Printed collections of the Serial Set are housed in MU Library's offsite storage facility, and are requestable only by allowing several days advance notice.  Alternatively, sets are available in FDLP libraries in the St. Louis area.  See St. Louis area Union List.  Printed indexes to the Serial Set are so inconvenient for genealogical research, they are probably not be worth the time.  It is best to look for a full text searchable product.

It is possible to  use the full text Serial Set database to find inventors with your family name.  If you have access to the full text Serial Set database,

  • Enter "Patent" in the citation text box and a name in the full text box.  
  • Browse the hits for annual reports of the U. S. Patent Office.  Names, inventions and patent numbers are listed in tables inside those reports.
  • Write down the patent number provided in the U. S. Patent Office report.
  • Enter the patent number at this free website:  You will be able to view and print the complete patent, including drawings and images.  The patent will be dated and it will tell the city and state of the inventor.

When searching the full text Serial Set, use the search tips described under the "Tips" tab above.

Govt Documents Coordinator

Marie Concannon's picture
Marie Concannon
MU students:
Make an appointment with me
in MU Connect
106-B Ellis Library
(573) 882-0748