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Genealogical Research in Government Documents: Print Collections

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

Finding Genealogical Information in a Federal Depository Library

A federal depository library is one which has entered into a partnership with the U.S. Government Printing Office to receive publications from Congress and executive agencies in order to make them available to the public.    Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) collections are not genealogical collections per se, but they can and do contain information about people who lived in the past.   Some sample documents in FDL collections:

  • Letters from citizens to Congress, for example these on woman suffrage (1918)
  • Private laws (i. e. pertaining to a single individual) to grant them some kind of exception to public laws.
  • Early land patents and property descriptions
  • Maps which show locations of houses in rural areas (example)  (List of dates available)
  • Information related to military service
  • Pre-Civil War petitions by African Americans to gain freedom
  • Lists of federal government employees
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Smithsonian report about an Indian burial site found on a person's property
    • Annual list of aircraft accidents listing names of pilots and passengers (1920s-1930s)

Planning a Genealogical Research Trip to a Federal Depository Library

Step 1: Find a  Federal Depository Library (FDL) by using the directory.  Note the date the library joined the program.  The University of Missouri in Columbia received depository designation in 1862.  Elsewhere in Missouri, the St. Louis Public Library, Washington University in St. Louis and St. Louis University all have early start dates and have preserved their historic depository collections.

Step 2: Call the library in advance to ask about policies for guest computer use, printing and downloading.  Find out how the library provides access to  materials stored off-site.  Ask about the historic depth of the collection and whether the library has a full text searchable U.S. Congressional Serial Set database.  If the library is also a member of Hathi Trust, you will be able to download complete works.  In our state, the University of Missouri and Washington University are members.   If the answers to such questions satisfy you, ask for an appointment to meet with the federal depository librarian to get an orientation when you come for your first visit.  Remember that FDL collections are not typically used for genealogy so you will need to ask for specific titles and databases.  There is no "genealogy section" in the FDL collection.

Step 3: You can prepare for your first  visit by looking through Genealogical Resources in U.S. Federal Depository Libraries, a guide created by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries.  Much of this will be online through links provided, or freely available in full text through Hathi Trust.

Step 4: The day of your visit, bring your notes and family charts with you.  Having names, dates and places will help you get good results when searching databases.  Bring a jump drive for saving material downloaded from databases.

TIP: You will probably use most of your time using the full text searchable U.S. Congressional Serial Set database, which is only available in subscribing libraries.   See more information under the tab above.

Govt Documents Coordinator

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Marie Concannon
Welcomes questions from everyone
106-B Ellis Library
University of Missouri
(573) 882-0748


Get the handout distributed at the June 22 presentation to the Missouri Historical Society.