Modern Political Archives Archives & Special Collections

Contact Information

Leigh McWhite
Political Papers Archivist
Assistant Professor
Archives & Special Collections
J.D. Williams Library
University, MS 38677

Telephone: 662.915.1850

Email: slmcwhit@olemiss.edu


Tara Pawley
Senior Library Assistant
Archives & Special Collections
J.D. Williams Library.
University, MS 38677

Telephone: 662.915.1850

Email: tapawley@olemiss.edu

Modern Political Archives:
Research Tips on Using Congressional Collections

The material in Congressional Collections are both unique and ubiquitous.  On the one hand, the records of each member are distinctly different, reflecting a public official’s era in office, personal interests, constituent concerns, and committee memberships.  To make the most efficient use of their time and effort, researchers should identify in advance those senators or representatives whose papers are most likely to contain material relevant to their topic. If the focus is on Mississippi, obviously the delegation from the Magnolia State is appropriate for study.  One could also concentrate only on those members who served in Congress during a specific period or even more narrowly on those whose committees have oversight on their particular subject… for instance, VA hospitals are a particular concern of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (see below for instructions on identifying committees and membership).

Yet for all their individuality, congressional offices all tend to hold a similar set of general document types:

While a researcher’s topic may be so specific that only one category is necessary (say, speeches for a paper on oratory), consider the possible applications of multiple formats.  For instance, an article on a particular speech may be enriched by consulting contemporary newspaper clippings that provide analysis about the speech’s reception; film or audio may exist which actually recorded the event; routine requests for copies of the published speech may offer a method for documenting its success; issue correspondence on the topic will provide insight into the development of the member’s expressed opinions as well as constituent reaction afterwards; and voting records and legislative sponsorship provide evidence of a member’s actual performance on the matter.

Despite sharing common categories of documents, congressional collections do not exhibit a standard organizational plan.  Over the years, curators (even within the same institution) have adopted a number of different schemes for arrangement.  In some cases, archives have preserved faithfully the integrity of the original filing system adopted by the congressional office staff.  While at other times curators may have imposed their own organizational method.  In addition to consulting the introductory notes of each collection’s finding aid, a wise researcher will also ask the archivist for assistance in negotiating what can be a vast, complex set of papers.

See below for further discussions on researching in congressional collections:

For political scientists

For all researchers:

  • “Congressional Collections…Not Just for Political Historians!” Archives & Special Collections Newsletter Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2009/2010), pages 4-5.
  • Karen Dawley Paul, Glenn R. Gray, and L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin, eds. An American Political Archives Reader. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009.  Part VI: Using Congressional Collections includes five articles by historians and political scientists. Call Number: CD3043 A83 2009.

Congressional Calendars

Some of the documents and publications in a congressional collection will not bear dates in terms of a specific day, month, or year.  Instead, researchers may find notations with regards to something like “90th Congress, 1st Session.”

Every odd-numbered year on January 3rd, a new Congress begins that lasts for two years.  The first year in each Congress is designated as “1st Session” while the next is “2d Session.”  Thus, the “90th Congress, 1st Session” took place in 1967.

The U.S Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives provide useful web pages for matching dates with the congressional calendar.

Committee Membership

Both the Senate and the House distribute responsibility for legislation, investigation, and oversight among a series of committees with designated specialties.  A researcher focusing on a specific subject or piece of legislation should identify appropriate committees and their members.  The following resources may prove useful in this task:

  • David T. Canon, et al.  Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789-1946.  Washington, DC:  CQ Press, 2002.  Volume 1 describes jurisdictions and members and contains membership rosters for House Standing Committees; Vol. 2, Senate Standing Committees; and Vol. 4, Select Committees.  Volume 3 is arranged by members of Congress and provides a summary of committee membership.
  • Garrison Nelson with Clark H. Bensen.  Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947-1992.  Washington, DC:  Congressional Quarterly, 1993-1994.  Volume 1 describes committee jurisdictions and contains membership rosters for every Congress within the time span covered by the publication.  Volume 2 is organized by members of Congress and provides a summary of committee membership.
  • The United States Code Congressional and Administrative News by West Publishing has included subcommittee membership lists since 1947.

Congress retains ownership of official committee records, and the National Archives manages these historical collections.  The Guide to the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1789-1989 and the Guide to the Records of the U.S. Senate 1789-1989 discuss the jurisdiction, history, and records created by the committees in both houses of Congress. The Records of the Joint Committees of Congress 1789-1968 contain the records of committees whose membership is drawn from both houses of Congress.

Legislative History

Those researchers who do not specialize in congressional studies may find the reference system for bills confusing.  Bills that originate in the U.S. House of Representatives begin with an “H” followed by a number.  “H. 37” is the thirty-seventh bill introduced in the House during that particular Congress (see the section above entitled “Congressional Calendars”).  “S.” naturally corresponds to bills introduced in the Senate. 

The last bound volume of the Congressional Record provides indexes for House and Senate bills which trace the history of a bill’s movement through Congress by referencing earlier page numbers that contain information on introductions, amendments, reports, hearings, and debates.

Congressional Staff

Each member of Congress has staff who provide assistance with constituent services and legislative responsibilities.  In addition, committees in the House and Senate also employ staff.  In the process of exploring a congressional collection, a researcher will come across numerous staff memoranda and other forms of communication.  If interested in pursuing information on individuals who worked for a member, a researcher might wish to consult the following:

Of course, the collection itself may retain files on office personnel and job responsibilities.

Searching for Congressional Collections