Guide to the Research Collections



Government publications (or public documents; the terms are used interchangeably throughout this Guide ) have always been an outstanding feature of the library's collections. Their importance as sources of many kinds of information was recognized from the beginning. That part of the collection of public documents not specifically classed by subject numbers 350,000 volumes. Administered by the Economic and Public Affairs Division, it has been assigned the class mark *S

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in the Billings Classification Schedule. There are, in addition, many other volumes of public documents in the collections which have been classified in nearly every subject area of the library. Several of these areas are extensive: law, with its long files of session laws; the Patents Collection, made up almost entirely of official government publications; and the extremely important and extensive collection of official census and statistical reports. A conservative calculation of the number of public documents outside the *S class mark is in excess of 700,000 volumes, twice the number to be found within the class mark.

The Research Libraries attempt to collect and retain permanently all important publications in their subject fields of interest issued by international governmental agencies, and by the national, state, and provincial governments of all countries. Municipal documents are collected with limitations described in a following paragraph. Certain categories of public documents are not usually acquired:

Book counts and estimates taken by the library have always included only those public documents within the *S class mark. The following tabulation of the library's document holdings, therefore, gives only a partial picture of the growth of the holdings since 1897, when a public documents collection was first organized:


Dr. Cogswell of the Astor Library predicted the value of public documents in supplying current information, as well as historical data. His point of view may have resulted from the necessity of meeting the interests of the New York public which the Astor Library served--the pressure of finding information about conditions both here and abroad for commercial, industrial, and cultural uses--but whatever the cause, as early as 1851 he observed, in his Annual Report, the "great number of important and costly scientific, statistical and historical works ... which we might have gratuitously...." from various governments.1

In the same year Cogswell recorded the receipt of copies of all volumes on hand of documentary history published by the British Record Commission, and of important statistical works issued by the Danish government. By 1879 it was routinely stated that the Astor Library had received British documents relating to India and official publications from New Zealand, New South Wales, Canada, France, Italy, and Prussia.

American public documents were not neglected by either of the foundation libraries. Early legislative publications were collected primarily during 1893 and 1894, when the Lenox Library made extensive purchases of American law and legislative journals from the library of Dr. George H. Moore. The Astor Library also had some early and rare materials in this field, notably in the Ford collection. But previous to this Cogswell had started seeking contemporary publications as well. In 1854, Albany contributed an extensive selection of New York state documents, and the Maine legislature passed a resolution directing the Secretary of State to forward complete sets of state documents. Massachusetts took similar action in 1856. These were the beginnings of the library's ordered plan to secure important material as it appeared, and by 1902 the documents from these states and from New Jersey, Indiana, and Pennsylvania were complete.

In the library's 1909 Annual Report is an excellent survey of public documents. Much of the general information provided is applicable today, since the library has kept well abreast in this field.

The major subject areas in which the library now collects government publications comprehensively are business, the social sciences (with special emphasis on economics, government, and international affairs), and the physical, chemical, and engineering sciences. Few public documents in the medical and natural sciences are collected, since the library does not specialize in these fields. Originally legal literature was considered primarily of interest to the law student and to the lawyer, and was accordingly left to the university and the special law library for cultivation. The realization that law is not a thing apart but a definite aspect of the social and historical picture of any political unit has resulted in the strengthening of the collections bearing on statutory law. The Research Libraries also selectively collect the law reports or court decisions of U.S. federal courts and New York State courts of record. The library's resources and acquisition policy in the field of law are more fully discussed in chapter 37 of this Guide.

The library's holdings of official gazettes or newspapers have always been of exceptional strength for most countries of the world. In 1956 the library began to preserve its files on microfilm, and by 1969 had been successful in acquiring and filming current issues of most titles. Relatively little has been accomplished, however, in the attempt to preserve holdings prior to the late 1950s.

The library is a depository for the publications of the United Nations and other international agencies and for the federal government publications of the United States and Canada. In addition, the library is a depository for the state publications of New York, California, and Washington. There is a vast collection of public documents, federal, state, and to a lesser degree municipal, received by the library from most of the countries of the world.