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Govdocs are hard mkay?

I thought I’d recount an interesting little research question I had yesterday that took me down a rabbit hole trying to answer. This student was looking for an edition of a 1913 publication called the “Immigration Laws and Rules” (WorldCat helpfully notes the uniform titles of “Laws, etc.” and “Immigration Laws”!) but couldn’t find the right one in google books (go figure!).

Hi! I’m looking for copies of the “Immigration Laws and Rules,” published by the D.C. Government Printing Office. Specifically, I’m interested in finding editions printed in 1913, because I’m researching a change in immigration policy that happened when an immigration rule was amended on June 16, 1913. I’ve found one edition on Google Books that reflects amendments made March 10, 1913. Modifying my search on Google Books hasn’t produced the editions closest to that June date that I would be interested in. I’d really appreciate help finding those editions, either in print or online. Thanks!

My library unfortunately does not have this title (anyone want to send me their run? I’ll take good care of it!) I found other editions online (e.g. in the Internet Archive, Hathitrust, Harvard’s digital repository, and Proquest Congressional Publications, but not the specific edition that this student thought she wanted. The record is in WorldCat (but NOT in the CGP!), so the student could get the correct edition via Interlibrary borrowing.

But the best part of this was when I went to the Monthly Catalog to find the publishing history of this title. The July 1913 – June 1914 MoCat volume (btw, Internet Archive has a long run of the Monthly Catalogue online!) gave me a description of the publication along with this little gem of a quote on p.156:


Immigration laws, rules of Nov. 15, 1911, was issued in January, 1912. The same publication, with amendments, 2d edition, appeared in May, 1912. A 3d edition, with amended footnotes, was published in August, 1912. Another print of this last-named publication, with amendments, and designated as 2d edition, was issued under the printed date Mar. 10, 1913, and entered in the April Monthly catalogue. The same publication, without amendment, was reprinted later in May, 1913, as 4th edition. A fifth issue, dated Sept. 9, 1913, is called 1st edition. The reason for calling this a 1st edition instead of a 5th edition is stated to be that it is the first publication of the Immigration laws made by authority of the present Commissioner General of Immigration. This seems a natural enough reason, but when it comes to be considered it will be seen that it amounts to numbering the official instead of the publication.

President Wilson did not find it necessary to start a new set of numbers for his proclamations and Executive orders. He continued the same series that had been begun by Presidents Roosevelt and Taft. President Taft’s last proclamation is numbered 1236, President Wilson’s first, 1237. President Taft’s last Executive order is no. 1743, President Wilson’s first, 1744.

The various editions of the Immigration laws are sent, by requirement of law to nearly 500 official libraries, which must arrange the publications received in such order that they may be readily found when wanted. With two 1st editions, one published in 1912 and the other in 1913, and two 2d editions, showing the same discrepancy, with a 1st edition of a later date than the 4th edition, and a 2d edition following the 3d edition, it will be seen that the work of the librarian remote from Washington, and consequently from official explanation, is made needlessly hard and confusing.

This is the only reason why the Monthly catalogue thinks it necessary to print this note. The Catalogue is the official medium between the depository libraries and the Government publishing bureaus, and the libraries look to the Catalogue to straighten out for them those things in the public documents which on the surface appear tangled and troublesome.

Government documents are hard, mkay?!

That is all.

The extraordinary growing impact of the history of science

In a recent paper published on arxiv.org entitled “On the Shoulders of Giants: The Growing Impact of Older Articles”, the authors examined the citation arc over time of older scholarly articles and how that impact has changed over time and with increased digital access. They found that citations to older articles (and therefore their impact) has substantially grown as older papers have become as easy to find as new ones. Check out the arxiv blog for more explanation.

I’d like to see similar research on historic government documents. My sense is that, over time, digitized government documents will be used more — IF they’re made findable in lots of library catalogs and on the open Web and IF govdocs librarians will do more to “seed the cloud” with Q&As and blog posts about interesting documents they come across in their work! — AND that as they’re used more, the original paper documents from which they were scanned will also be used more. Anyone want to do the research?

On the Shoulders of Giants: The Growing Impact of Older Articles. Alex Verstak, Anurag Acharya, Helder Suzuki, Sean Henderson, Mikhail Iakhiaev, Cliff Chiung Yu Lin, Namit Shetty

That raises an interesting question — if old papers are now as easy to find as modern ones, are they having as great an impact?

Today we get an answer of sorts thanks to the work of Alex Verstak and pals at Google. These guys have studied how often older articles are cited in modern papers and how this has changed since the advent of electronic publishing in the 1990s. Their conclusion is that older papers are having an increasingly important impact on modern science — that the distinction between old and new, between the historical and the modern, no longer creates a division in science.

These guys base their work on a database of citations in scientific papers published between 1990 and 2013 in 9 broad areas of research subdivided into 261 subject areas. For each discipline, they then plotted the percentage of citations to papers that were at least ten years old.

The results show a clear trend. “Our analysis indicates that, in 2013, 36% of citations were to articles that are at least 10 years old and that this fraction has grown 28% since 1990,” say Verstak and co. What’s more, the increase in the last ten years is twice as big as in the previous ten years, so the trend appears to be accelerating.

The results solve an ongoing conundrum among researchers involved in scientometrics, the study of science and scientific research. Some of these researchers have long argued that the ongoing digitisation of historical papers should automatically ensure that they are cited more often. Others point out that there has been a huge increase in the number scientific papers published in recent years so historical papers should be a smaller proportion of the total and therefore cited less.

The work of Verstak and co shows that the former effect has won out. “Now that finding and reading relevant older articles is about as easy as finding and reading recently published articles, significant advances aren’t getting lost on the shelves and are influencing work worldwide for years after,” they say.

via The Extraordinary Growing Impact Of The History Of Science — The Physics arXiv Blog — Medium.

Conference heads up: “Beyond the Numbers: Economics and Data for Information Professionals”

This looks to be a highly interesting conference at the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis this September 29-30, 2014 for anyone interested in historic economic data. Keynote speakers include Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google, and Neil Fantom, World Bank manager who leads their Open Data Initiative.

St Louis Fed is doing such great work in providing access to historic economic data so this is a great opportunity to discuss, learn, plan, and strategize for how libraries and the Fed can work collaboratively in this arena. Hope to see lots of our readers in St Louis!


The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis is hosting a free conference to address the challenges of economic information. We are bringing together experts to share their experiences at the frontier of economic data and information, discuss problems and potential solutions, and identify ways to improve access to and understanding of economic information.Our aim is to provide librarians and other information professionals with the knowledge, competence, and enthusiasm to disseminate economic information expertise to their respective audiences.

via Beyond the Numbers Economics and Data for Information Professionals.

Intro to the National Security Archive at George Washington University

This is the first in a series of guest posts from the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research organization, archive and publisher of declassified documents. Thanks to James Jacobs for the invitation to write about the Archive. Over the next 3-4 posts, I’ll describe the organization and some of our projects, starting today with a bit of history about our founding and mission in life. Meanwhile, we invite any and all to visit us at www.nsarchive.org or in person at Gelman Library on the campus of George Washington University.

* * * * *

For anyone who loves anniversaries, this month is a biggie. Fifty years ago the world survived one of the seminal events of the nuclear age — the Cuban missile crisis. I mention it because almost from the very start, the National Security Archive’s been an active promoter of studying the crisis (we’ll have a series of postings of the latest findings on our site in the coming weeks), and it makes for a good case study of what our organization’s mission is and how we go about our work.

(Today I’ll touch on our substantive projects; later posts will deal with other Archive activities.)

In 1985, the Archive officially opened its doors to the public as an innovative non-profit research institute and library facility focused on making available the underlying government documentation all of us as citizens need to understand what our elected officials (and permanent bureaucracies!) are doing in our name. That basic mission reflected the mix of individuals who over time in the early 1980s coalesced around the idea of forming such an organization — journalists (Scott Armstrong, Washington Post; Raymond Bonner, New York Times; Strobe Talbott, Time; and others), scholars (John Lewis Gaddis, Catherine Kelleher, Ernest May, Anne Cahn, John Prados, among others), public interest group leaders (John Shattuck, Mort Halperin, Margaret Carroll, and others), former officials (Anthony Lake, Walt Slocombe, Joseph Onek, etc.), and even current members of Congress like Jim Moody (D-WI). Each in their own profession had an interest in following how the government worked, and each understood the power of the historical record in educating the public.

Our main tool for breaking loose documentation was the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) — passed in 1966 and later amended — which in principle grants anyone access to the inner workings of the Executive Branch. (States have their own version of the law.) Building on donations by Armstrong, Bonner and many others, the Archive began to develop a large repository of declassified records, which has always been open to researchers at our facility (originally at the Brookings Institution, but since 1995 at GWU). Right now, our holdings total somewhere around 8 million pages and run the gamut of foreign policy topics covering the Cold War and its aftermath.

How do we organize our work? Here’s where the Cuban missile crisis comes in. Generally, our projects center around the efforts of a staff analyst whose job it is to become an expert not only in the history of a given subject but, critically, in the way that subject was handled by the U.S. government. Since accumulating the key paperwork underlying U.S. policy is our goal, you have to know how it flowed within the halls of government, especially when it would be utterly impractical (not to say impossible) to expect to get your hands on more than a tiny fraction of the millions of pages federal agencies produce on these kinds of topics in the course of their activities.

In the Cuba case, we had a couple of analysts who filed FOIAs for critical material, such as Kennedy’s correspondence with Khrushchev, CIA studies, and so on. As you might expect, they initially got stonewalled from time to time on much of the more sensitive items, and had to file appeals, as provided for under the Act. Part of the problem was that agencies claimed they simply couldn’t locate the files. That seemed hard to imagine, given the high level of involvement (the president and his men) during the crisis. It was only after an active round of additional research and interviews with a range of outside experts including former officials that it began to become clear that much of the most important material had been removed from its normal archival locations on orders of Lyndon Johnson, who decided that if another similar crisis erupted one day it would be a good idea to have the record available so that future presidents and officials could study the Cuban crisis as an example. From there it took a bit more effort to determine that the materials had been stored away in a special office inside the State Department, but once my colleagues were able to provide that information (down to the level of box titles) to the Department, it removed a major obstacle to getting the documents out into the public domain.

But a second hurdle remained — one that anyone who’s ever researched recent foreign policy or intelligence records knows all too well: how to overcome restrictions on access to classified information? This is something our analysts deal with every day. Protecting reasonably classified information, especially if it concerns American foreign relations, is one of several legal justifications under FOIA for withholding records from the public. Sometimes the official reasoning is entirely understandable — for instance if it relates to the specifics of manufacturing a nuclear bomb, or to planned troop deployments. But bureaucrats and politicians being who they are, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that often the rationales employed to keep our history hidden are either flimsy or entirely bogus. Scholars and journalists confront these problems all the time, and it frequently takes persistent effort to argue one’s case through the appeals process to a point where an agency will reverse its earlier denial. This was another reason for creating the Archive — to have an institution in place that could afford to wait the months, years and — yes — even decades it sometimes takes for requests to be fulfilled. (We’ve had numerous requests take 10, 15, 20 or even more years to be completed.)

When it came to arguing our case on the missile crisis, we eventually were able to take advantage of some of the monumental political changes that had taken place around the collapse of the Soviet Union and the (putative) end of the Cold War. As former Soviet archives began to open a crack, and as Boris Yeltsin learned the power of documents as a weapon to expose the misdeeds of his former Communist Party cronies, some astonishing materials from “the other side” of the Cold War started to emerge. Among these were records of leadership meetings, correspondence and transcripts of conversations with foreign heads of state. These included some dealing with what the Soviets used to call “the Caribbean crisis.” Since (a) our main global enemy no longer existed, and (b) its successor regime was releasing some of the same kinds of materials we and other researchers were seeking from the U.S., it was possible argue with U.S. agencies that there was no longer a need to protect once-sensitive documentation about the inner debates of the ExComm, photos from U-2 flights over Cuba, and reams of intelligence about events that, after all, had occurred 30 years earlier.

Through sheer persistence and a little creative thinking, the Archive was able to accumulate an extraordinary record of the crisis that has since become part of the larger public record amassed by scholars and journalists around the world.

Yet, one of the lessons one learns fairly soon in this line of work is that government records — surprise — do not tell the whole story! A document is only as accurate and reliable as its author, who may or may not have had access to good information, and may have been influenced by motives we can sometimes only guess at. How then to get past this basic historiographical challenge? By asking the people who wrote or received those documents!

But here we were able to go about that task with a twist. It was our tremendously good fortune in the course of our work on the missile crisis to come into contact, and quickly partner with, an unusual husband-and-wife team — James G. Blight and janet [sic] M. Lang, then of Harvard’s Kennedy School (now at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Ontario, Canada). Neither of these two were originally trained historians (he is a psychologist, she is an epidemiologist!), but together they came up with a methodology for studying recent historical events that has produced some extraordinarily important results. The approach is called Critical Oral History and it’s complex enough to have had books written about it, so I’ll only give a thumbnail sketch here. It involves bringing to the table (literally) a group of individuals (often former antagonists) who participated in the events under scrutiny, adding to the mix a small contingent of scholars who know the literature, and underpinning the exercise with declassified documents from the time. The “veterans” are there to discuss among themselves how they viewed the events at the time, what they sought to achieve, what they believed their adversaries were up to, and so on. The scholars and documents are there to refresh memories and keep the discussion anchored in the facts insofar as that’s possible.

This was the methodology Jim and janet — usually with the Archive’s help on the document front (and at times in other ways) — used to explore the missile crisis at a depth and level of detail not otherwise attainable before then. Starting in 1987 and running initially through 1992, they organized a series of conference in Cambridge, Mass.; the Caribbean; Moscow; and Havana itself, at which the participants included Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ted Sorenson and additional U.S. luminaries from the period; Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, his deputy Georgi Kornienko, long-time Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin, and various other Soviet diplomats, generals and intelligence experts; and, from Cuba, Fidel Castro plus several of his senior advisers. As a principal part of the Archive’s contribution, we were able to gather a pretty rich array of declassified records not just from the United States but from literally all over the world — Russia, the Soviet bloc, Cuba, China, Brazil, and elsewhere. As a result of these accumulated resources (human and documentary), the sessions produced immediate headlines, and in the longer term fundamentally changed the way the missile crisis is understood — literally rewriting the text books.

Here are a few of the revelations:

– The U.S. did not know at the time that tactical nuclear weapons were on the island that might well have been used in the event of an American invasion, almost certainly touching off a nuclear war
– Washington had no idea that 43,000 Soviet troops and thousands more civilians were in Cuba by late October 1962, numbers that significantly raised the likelihood of a major retaliation in case of a U.S. invasion
– The Americans were unaware of the importance of Castro’s role and the pressure he put on Soviet leaders to sharpen their responses to U.S. actions, including emotionally advising Khrushchev at the height of the crisis that if the U.S. invaded the island Moscow should deploy its missiles before the Americans had the chance to use theirs
– Soviet subs around the quarantine line carried nuclear-tipped torpedoes that one captain tried to launch but failed when he couldn’t persuade other key holders on board to go along
– A major cause of the Soviet captain’s motivation was the fear of being under attack after the U.S. Navy, unaware of the nuclear-tipped torpedoes, began harassing the subs by tossing the equivalent of grenades onto them
– Ultimately, the crisis was not resolved by dint of nuclear superiority and boldly staring down the adversary — which was the original accepted wisdom; it involved a willingness to make a deal, to compromise, as Kennedy did in secretly offering a trade of the Cuban missiles for the Jupiter missiles in Turkey

To make revelations like these broadly available, the Archive does a number of things. First, we make our materials accessible to researchers at no charge (except photocopying) at our GWU facility. Another avenue is through a subscription product of highly curated selections — the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) — via the publisher ProQuest. We also publish shorter compilations of materials as books. And of course we post selected items on our Web site (www.nsarchive.org). We currently have 391 “Electronic Briefing Books” of documents on newsworthy topics on our site.

(I should clarify — and emphasize — that all these publications contain no editorializing from us on U.S. government policy. We’re a non-partisan 501(c)(3) group and the only issues we take a stand on are freedom of information and the principle of open government access.)

The Cuban missile crisis project in many ways became a model for our other historical documentation projects at the National Security Archive, including studies of U.S. policy toward the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union and the superpower rivalry, a series of crises in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and more. Most of the basic stories of these projects are available on our site and, as mentioned, the underlying documentation we and our partners and colleagues around the world have collected is also available here in Washington, D.C.

Next week I’ll talk (maybe at a bit shorter length!) about our freedom of information activities. If you have any questions as we go along, don’t hesitate to write to me at mbyrne@gwu.edu.

Malcolm Byrne
Deputy Director, Research Director
The National Security Archive
at George Washington University