Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/August 1894/The Distribution of Government Publications
By Prof. EDWARD S. MORSE.
IF there is any one portion of government machinery that would seem to demand a readjustment it is that portion which has to do with the distribution of public documents. I am not aware that there is any central bureau for the judicious distribution of the various publications of Government as there is, for example, for the issuing of patents or the payment of pensions. There is no government in the world more generous in the distribution of its multifarious publications than ours. The niggardly way in which Great Britain doles out her public documents has repeatedly excited the most adverse criticism from her own people. Knowing, as every one does, the slightly increased expense of printing extra copies after the first expense of composition, engraving, etc., has been provided for, it is most exasperating to see a rich country like Great Britain publishing the results of some important expedition, like that of the Challenger, for example, and not printing enough copies to meet even the hungry demand of her own special students. We have never erred in this respect, and in the scathing comments which this particular English frugality has received from her own men, our country has invariably been held up in striking contrast as an example to imitate. With the liberality of the General Government in this respect it is a pity that the distribution of printed matter should not be better systematized. There are many documents that doubtless represent official reports which are circulated not so much for instruction as to inform the country just what has been done by certain bureaus, and these probably reach the proper parties, in being sent to those prominent in governmental and political matters. With these we are not concerned. There are many other publications, however, that are issued solely for the purposes of information and instruction in lines of thought in which there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students in the United States. It is obvious that if these kinds of documents are issued to advance learning, then such copies, as are freely distributed through the mails should go to those who most need them. The present distribution of many of them is so imperfect that it would be paralleled by the Pension Bureau issuing a certain number of money checks to congressmen and senators to scatter where they pleased, or to realize on them if they were so inclined. Let me make this clearer. So far as I have been able to ascertain, the regular edition of a public document is nineteen hundred. From this edition fifty foreign governments, and the larger libraries and institutions in this country are each supposed to receive a copy. Each senator and congressman is entitled to two copies, and probably more for the asking. It is a common belief that many of these men dump their public documents into the waste-paper barrel, for the janitor to realize upon as old paper, which at one time had some value. As a matter of fact, many of them are sold to the junk shops, where they find their way into the secondhand book stalls; and students who want them are grateful for even this opportunity of securing them by purchase. It would certainly seem that a report which is of special interest to a greater or less number of students and writers should in some way get to them, and that their names should be on some permanent list at headquarters, so that when any report in their special line of thought is published they should be among the first to receive it. Not only is it evident that the Government publications often fall into the wrong hands, but, worse still, hundreds of thousands of volumes are rotting in the cellars of the Capitol and vitiating the air by their decomposition. A committee recently appointed by the House, to look into the question of fresh air has just discovered that certain rooms in the basement of the Capitol are filled with Government publications. In one series of vaults were one million two hundred and fifty thousand volumes, and many of these have been stored for thirty years. "They present a vast bulk of decomposing vegetable matter, which is tainting the atmosphere with impurities."
One reason of the apathy of the people in regard to the waste of public documents is that being free they are supposed to be valueless, and to many who receive them they have no value. In the rural regions they are used as scrap-books by the children, and there is hardly an attic in the land that does not contain a few of this kind of books, mixed with the usual light truck which ascends to the garret.
There is certainly nothing to complain of in the scientific departments of the Government. The valuable contributions published by the various scientific bureaus, have been distributed in such a way that special students get, without much trouble, the works needed in their studies. So far as I know, but few if any of these drift into the wrong channels. There are special reports of an ethnological character now and then appearing in other departments, notably in the United States consular reports, and subjects pertaining to other sciences issued from other bureaus, and these would be priceless to certain special workers, yet such reports are usually exhausted when application is made for them. I have often secured Government publications of the greatest value by overhauling a lot of stuff which some lawyer was about to throw away. Reports that I had never heard the existence of have come to me in this manner. Lately I had given to me from an editor's room several of pamphlets, books, etc., which were on their way to destruction. Among these were many public documents on various subjects, and these were distributed to those whom I knew would make good use of them. Among the letters of acknowledgment was one from a gentleman who has made a special study of the seal-fisheries dispute, and has written a number of reviews on the subject. This letter came in return for a government report containing a lengthy legal opinion about the seal fisheries, and is as follows: "Ever so much obliged to you for the document. I devoured it right off, and then took it up to the Harvard Law Library, where they were no less pleased to get it. They had never seen it nor heard of it, and seemed to be amused at the idea of their obtaining it through two such outside barbarians in law matters as you and I." This is by no means an exceptional case.
A public library of nearly forty thousand volumes in a neighboring city finds it impossible to get anywhere near a complete set of current Government reports; and yet it is plain enough that all public libraries in the United States, no matter how small, should be entitled to receive such publications of the Government as bear on science, education, etc., provided they ask for them and indicate a willingness to provide shelf room.
It is also said that documents are distributed as political favors, and thus, during a change of administration, these currents flow in other directions. The power to scatter such documents should be entirely out of the hands of politicians, and a central bureau should be organized whose duty it should be to keep lists of all persons making researches in the various departments of science, law, education, etc. Senators and representatives might be empowered to furnish these names, accompanied by evidence, however, that such persons had a right to them by virtue of their studies or occupations.
I know as a fact that many who receive these reports and documents are actually burdened with them, and often throw them into the waste-paper basket unopened, and there are hundred of others who would like them, and would make good use of them, and yet never get them. All this might be corrected by some systematic way of distribution from a common center.
If I were permitted to offer suggestions upon a matter with which I can claim but little knowledge, I would ask first that for convenience of reference there should be published each year a volume containing a list of all Government publications, with at least a table of contents of each report, and if possible a brief synopsis of the more important papers. Students would then have an opportunity of finding out the material they were in quest of. In the same volume should also be given a classified list of the recipients of Government reports, and this list should be kept standing for additions and subtractions. This annual report could be printed in the most condensed form, the matter solid, the covers paper, etc. Such a report should find its way into every school, college, and public library in the United States and to every one applying for it. It should be as common as an almanac. A list of publications of this nature might possibly show what appears to many the disjointed character of some of the series and lead to simplification. The Government goes on forever, yet with every new chief of department or change of administration comes a new series of parts or volumes, to the misery and despair of bibliographers. The hungry ambition of species describers might be curbed by checking the issue of separata of one or two pages.
If it were possible to establish a separate bureau of distribution, it would lead to economy of administration, to the economical and efficacious distribution of reports, the avoidance of duplication, and consequently the placing of material where it would do the most good, or at least where it would not be used to kindle the kitchen fire.
The above suggestions refer solely to those reports which tend to the advancement of human learning, and, printed and distributed freely as they are by the nation, should reach in every case those who stand most in need of them.