Open to the Foreword of the most recent Congressional Directory
, and you’ll learn that it’s “one of the oldest working handbooks within the United States Government,” compiled unofficially from 1789 to 1847, and officially by Congress ever since. What it won’t tell you is that the Directory
is a rich and multi-layered resource about the House, the Senate, and life on Capitol Hill. They’re yeoman-like and unassuming, but for historians and political scientists they provide a valuable means of studying the first branch of government.
Today, the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is the kind of trite shortcut your English teacher deducts points from your essay for using. But at the turn of the century the visceral power of a photograph was a new concept.
The existence of UFOs may seem like the exclusive domain of science fiction, but as Representative John Moss of California laid the groundwork for legislation that eventually became the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966, he didn’t discriminate in his pursuit to open as much government information as possible to the public.
Researchers often ignore the House Journal
in favor of its flashier cousin, the Congressional Record
. If laws were sausages, the Congressional Record
would report the grinding process of making them. The House Journal
by contrast has—with a few minor formatting adjustments—remained a constant over the span of House history, as a simple recapitulation of House actions as required by the Constitution.
Over the course of three years in the mid-1920s, the clerk of the Joint Committee on Printing, Ansel Wold, had a mission: find Representative Victor Berger's middle name and the name of the town in which Mr. Berger settled upon his arrival to the U.S. in the 1870s. And Wold needed to find this information fast, in time to publish the 1928 edition of the Biographical Directory of the American Congress
Without evidence, such as records, important pieces of information are lost to history. How many times have you read or listened to a fascinating story that started with the words, “Recently discovered records revealed that . . . ”? Although the Antiques Roadshow
–style discovery of a rare collection of documents in a dumpster is unusual, occasionally great finds are made in dark, dusty corners of long-forgotten spaces.