The Center for Legislative Archives

Citing the Records of Congress

The purpose of any citation is to promote the easy retrieval of the materials cited.

To facilitate retrieval of unpublished congressional records, researchers should identify the following elements in the citation: record, file unit, series, Congress, record group, and repository.

The repository for the records of the House and the Senate in the custody of the Center for Legislative Archives should be identified as the"National Archives, Washington, DC."

Some information in a citation can be abbreviated in subsequent notes. Each element of a note should be separated by a semicolon to avoid confusion. For detailed explanation of what is meant by 'record," "file unit," and "series," researchers should consult the National Archives and Records Administration's General Information Leaflet 17: "Citing Records of the National Archives of the United States."

Most records of the House and the Senate are arranged primarily by Congress, thereunder by activity and type of record or series, and thereunder by committee.

The basic arrangement is reflected in a classification scheme developed by the National Archives in the late 1930s. Under this scheme each series of records was given an alpha-numeric file number -- such as SEN34A-H21 -- that signified the relationship between that series and the entire body of congressional records. Citations to most House records 1789-1962, and Senate records, 1789-1946, should include the file number in parentheses immediately after the series title. Example: Petitions and memorials, resolutions of state legislatures and related documents which were referred to committees (SEN34A-H21).

For committee papers and reports, petitions referred to committees, and papers accompanying specific bills and resolutions, identify the committee to which the document was referred. For papers accompanying specific bills and resolutions, include the bill or resolution number. For foreign and Indian treaty files, identify the specific treaty. For nominations, identify the name of the nominee.

The citation should identify the document, its date and, where appropriate, its author and recipient. For many 18th- and 19th-century documents, the identifying data is found in the document's endorsement. The endorsement, written on the back of a document, indicates the date the chamber referred the document to the committee and what actions were taken on the subject of the document. If the date of the document differs from the endorsement date, which is usually the case, cite the document date and indicate in parentheses the date of the first endorsement. For example, a petition from George Dorrance dated December 3, 1855, submitted by Senator William H. Seward to the Senate on December 17, 1855, and referred to the Committee on Revolutionary Claims, bears an endorsement date of December 17, 1855. The endorsement date is important, because it is often the date that Congress used to file these documents.

Explanation of File Numbers, 1789-1946

All of the file numbers assigned to the general records of the House through 1946 are listed in the following National Archives publication: Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the United States House of Representatives, 1789-1946 (2 vols.). Some U.S. Government Depository Libraries hold copies of this preliminary inventory under the Superintendent of Documents classification number GS4.10:113. Comparable Senate file numbers are listed in loose-leaf binders in the office of the Center for Legislative Archives.

Because many of the documents in the Center's holdings are identified by file numbers, an understanding of the various elements of a designation, such as HR34A-G17.2, is useful. A detailed explanation of the classification system can be found in the introductory chapters on "Research in the Records of Congress' in the Senate and House Guides. In general, the letters and numbers to the left of the hyphen (HR34A) identify the chamber (House of Representatives), the Congress (34th Congress, 1855-1857) and the congressional activity involved (Records of Legislative Proceedings), while the ones to the right of the hyphen (G17.2) indicate the series and file segment within the records of an individual Congress in which a file is located.

For HR34A-G17.2, the elements in question are as follows:

1) "HR" = House of Representatives. The first element of the file number is either HR or SEN, which indicates that the record is either a House or a Senate record.
2) "34" = Thirty-fourth Congress, 1855-57. The number identifies the Congress in which the record was either created or referred. Beginning in 1789 with the First Congress, a new Congress has convened every two years.
3) "A" = Records of Legislative Proceedings. Other types of records include records of impeachments, records of the Clerk of the House, records of the Secretary of the Senate, and records of Senate executive proceedings.
4) "G" = PETITIONS AND MEMORIALS, RESOLUTIONS OF STATE LEGISLATURES, AND RELATED DOCUMENTS WHICH WERE REFERRED TO COMMITTEES. Within records of legislative proceedings, the next subdivision is for record type or series. For the 34th Congress, the seventh or "G" subdivision is for the petitions category. Other series include original journals, original bills and resolutions, committee papers, committee reports and papers, presidential messages, reports and communications submitted to the House or the Senate, petitions and memorials that were tabled, election records, nomination messages, papers relating to nominations, Indian treaty files, and foreign treaty files.
5) "17" = Committee on Public Lands. For the 34th Congress, this committee is the 17th committee listed alphabetically under the petitions category.
6) ".2" = the second of seven subcategories of petitions referred to the Committee on Public Lands ( i.e., "land laws in respect to bounty, graduation, and redemption").

Explanation of File Numbers, 1947 - present

Use of the classification scheme for Senate records was discontinued in 1947 and for House records in 1962, although a modified version is used for some records of the House through the 90th Congress (1967-1968). In general, records created or received after those dates are arranged first by Congress, and then by committee or subcommittee. Records below the committee or subcommittee level are arranged by series, such as legislative files, nomination files, subject files, hearings, and presidential messages received.


Examples--all fictitious--of how to cite unpublished congressional records:

Fifty women from Vermont praying an end to slavery in the District of Columbia, Jan. 15, 1838 (endorsed Feb. 7, 1838); Committee on the District of Columbia; Petitions and Memorials Referred to Committees (HR25A-G4.1); 25th Congress; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives, Washington, DC.
President's message, March 10, 1808 (endorsed March 12, 1808); Treaty with the Cherokees; Indian Treaty Files (SEN12B-C1); 12th Congress; Records of the United States Senate, Record Group 46; National Archives, Washington, DC.
Original Legislative Journal, Dec. 6, 1847, page 3; First Session (SEN30A-A2); 30th Congress; Records of the United States Senate, Record Group 46; National Archives, Washington, DC.
Petition of Robert W. Smith, Apr. 17, 1874; Report 4, Office 123: Disallowed Claims Files; Records of the Commissioners on Claims; Records of the House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives, Washington, DC.
Jane Smith to Walter Jones, Jan. 5, 1956; Hanford Power Plant; unclassified subject files; Records of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Record Group 128; National Archives, Washington, DC.
Hearings on the Situation in Cuba, Jan. 9, 1963, page 56; formerly classified hearings; Committee on Foreign Relations; 88th Congress; Records of the United States Senate, Record Group 46; National Archives, Washington, DC.
Emily Jones to Jay Sourwine, July 7, 1952; Owen Lattimore file; Individual Name Files; Subcommittee on Internal Security; 82nd Congress; Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46; National Archives, Washington, DC.
John Doe to Alexander Smith, Dec. 3, 1946; Complaints--California, Records Relating to Defense Housing (OP-17); Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, 1941-48; Records of the United States Senate, Record Group 46; National Archives, Washington, DC.