Browsing the U.S. Government Manual

September 29, 2011

What with invisible ink, yetis, and earthquakes, the world of Government publications can be so diverse and intriguing that it’s easy to lose track of sober perennials like the U.S. Government Manual. I’ve used this great book throughout my career in the Federal Government to get contact information for the right part of a large Federal agency or verify that a smaller, more obscure one actually existed – and what it really did. Thanks to the diligent folks at the National Archives and Records Administration’s  Office of the Federal Register, you can ferret out phone numbers, mailing addresses and URLs that really work, or just read through each agency entry to better understand its particular missions and activities. It’s perhaps the premier annual reference book for all three branches of Government.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Government Book Talk if I didn’t come at my subject from a slightly skewed angle. My favorite section to browse isn’t the main listing of agencies, the quasi-official agencies, or even the international organizations – it’s the History of Organizational Changes. For scholars or other researchers, this section is valuable because it allows them to trace the institutional evolution of a Government function or track down the ultimate fate of a defunct bureau or commission. For me (although I’ve used it for these worthy purposes), it’s mainly a way to arouse bemused curiosity about how Federal entities were christened in years past. Did you know that we once had a Bureau of Efficiency (1916-1933)? Did it fade away because we got too efficient? Doubtful, I’m afraid. What about the Office of Facts and Figures (1941-1942)? I know we haven’t run out of them…

Some innocuous agency names conceal more interesting activities. There couldn’t be a blander, more bureaucratic sounding name than The Office of  the Coordinator of Information (1942). It quickly changed to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which, under the charismatic leader of William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, conducted U.S.espionage and sabotage activities for the European Theater of Operations in World War II and was the progenitor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Then there was the Virgin Islands Company (1934-1966), a New Deal Government corporation established to grow and refine sugar cane and manufacture and sell rum in that beautiful U.S. possession. It marketed rum under the name “Government House.” The label (left) featured a sailing ship, a palm tree, and a harbor, and supposedly was designed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. How else could I find out about this stuff if not through the pages of the U.S. Government Manual?

If you need a source of the latest information about any Government agency, or if you’re just curious about the innumerable nooks and crannies of the Federal establishment, the U.S. Government Manual is for you. You can browse it here, get a print copy of the 2011 edition here, or find it in a library.


The Secret History of Invisible Ink, Part 1

May 12, 2011

When I was a kid, I could write in invisible ink – really! Take some lemon juice, apply to paper with a brush or stick, and then heat over the light bulb in one of our living room lamps. Voila! Brown lettering would appear on a blank white sheet of paper. A bit unsophisticated perhaps, but it worked. I didn’t really have any secrets to smuggle past the authorities – it was the mere fact of writing invisibly that made it so cool.

Now here I am, all of these years later, still fascinated. A recent news item from the Central Intelligence Agency caught my eye – “CIA Declassifies Oldest Documents in U.S. Government Collection.” The subject of these mysterious papers, which date back to 1917 and 1918: invisible inks! I had to check it out.

The CIA describes these timeworn items succinctly and well: “One document outlines the chemicals and techniques necessary for developing certain types of secret writing ink and a method for opening sealed letters without detection. Another memorandum dated June 14, 1918 – written in French – reveals the formula used for German secret ink.” My favorite is document number 6: Invisible Photography and Writing, Sympathetic Ink, Etc., a four-page pamphlet compiled by Theodore Kytka, identified as “Handwriting Expert, San Francisco, Cal.” and “printed by the San Francisco Division [of what, I wonder? It doesn’t say] for the information of Post Office Inspectors.”

According to the CIA, only recently have advances in technology made these various formulae obsolete, spy-wise. Among the secrets: “A German Formula. Take one ounce of alum and one ounce of white garlic juice. Write with a quill and on heating the paper the letters become very legible and cannot  be removed by salt water application.” Then there’s “Disappearing Ink. Take a weak solution of starch, tinged with a little tincture of iodine. The bluish writing will soon fade away.” Boy, is my mother lucky I didn’t latch onto this information – our kitchen would have been a disaster area!

Not only is this a really great story, it also ties into GPO’s 150th anniversary in a very interesting way. During World War II, our scientists helped to thwart the use of invisible inks, like those described above, by Axis prisoners of war. In my next post, I’ll tell that story. Stay tuned!


Browsing Through the World Factbook

December 14, 2010

The big, comprehensive, and recurring reference work is a classic Government publication type. One of my favorites of this kind is the CIA’s annual World Factbook. Since 1980, this massive volume has been a mainstay for anyone interested in the various countries of the world.

Although the Factbook has all kinds of information about a country’s geography, people, government, economy, population, communications, transportation, and military, plus both inset and foldout maps, the section that always draws my attention is “Transnational Issues.” If, as Thomas Carlyle said, “Happy the people whose annals are blank in history,” then happy is the nation whose World Factbook profile has nothing under that heading. The subheads include “Disputes – International,” “Refugees and internally displaced persons,” “Illicit drugs,” and “Trafficking in persons.” It’s amazing how few countries meet this definition of happiness. Of course, many underdeveloped or newly formed nations, like Chad and Moldova, suffer from these ills, but so do Denmark (disputes with Iceland and the UK over the Faeroe Islands continental shelf; Faeroese interest in full independence), New Zealand (territorial claim in Antarctica; amphetamine use), and Portugal (“Portugal does not recognize Spanish sovereignty over the territory of Olivenza based on a difference of interpretation of the 1815 Congress of Vienna and the 1820 treaty of Badajoz”; gateway for the international drug traffic).

Of course, a peaceful disagreement between Spain and Portugal is a long way from the simmering armed conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but boundary disputes and international crime are, unhappily, common currency in the world – and what better place to find out about them, and a host of other developments, than the World Factbook? The CIA maintains the Factbook here, or you can get your own copy here.


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