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:
- Correspondence with congressional colleagues as well as White House, federal, state, and local officials
- Issue correspondence from constituents and others either advocating a specific stance on legislation – a rich resource for grassroots opinions on a wide array of subjects
- Voting record files
- Legislative files on specific bills
- Committee records
- Campaign records
- Requests for employment or school recommendations
- Routine requests for autographs, flags, tours of the Capitol or White House, and so forth
- Office guest books, invitations to events, member’s schedules, telephone logs
- Files documenting trips abroad on congressional business
- Scrapbooks and clippings from newspapers and journals on the member or subjects of particular interest
- Press releases, newsletters, and media correspondence
- Photographs, audio recordings, and film
- Case files from constituents requesting intervention with the federal bureaucracy on a personal matter, such as Social Security benefits or visas abroad
- Certificates, plaques, and memorabilia
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
- “Using Archival Resources in Legislative Research: Choosing the Road Less Traveled.” Extension of Remarks, Legislative Studies Section, American Political Science Association, July 2005, Vol. 28, No. 2. Contains articles by Sean Kelly, Douglas B. Harris, David M. Barrett, Frank Mackaman, Ronald M. Peters Jr., Scott A. Frisch, Rebecca Melvin Johnson, Linda Whitaker, Jessica Kratz, and Marian Matyn.
- “Want to Count Something? Count This …” by Linda Whitaker at Arizona Historical Foundation.
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.
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.
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.
- Bibliography of Senate Committee Histories (several titles offered in full-text)
- Chairmen of Senate Standing Committees (1789 to present)
- The annual Congressional Directory(1809-1886) and Official Congressional Directory (1888 -- present) contain lists of committee membership for the specific Congress covered by that directory. Subcommittee membership rosters have appeared in the Official Congressional Directory since 1973. GPO has provided online access to the Congressional Directory from 1995 forward.
- 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.
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.
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:
- Congressional Staff Directory (1959 -- present)
- Almanac of the Unelected. Washington, DC: Almanac of the Unelected. (1988 -- present)
Searching for Congressional Collections
- Mississippi Members of Congress Database Includes basic data on all Mississippians who have represented the state in Congress and provides information on available collections.
- Congressional Biographical DirectoryInformation on all current and past members of Congress with list of archival resources.
- Index of Repositories with Congressional CollectionsMaintained by the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives.