A new history of GPO – hot off the press

June 15, 2011

As I mentioned some months ago, 2011 marks the U.S. Government Printing Office’s 150th anniversary. Since no history of the agency has been written since 100 GPO Years in 1961, and a great deal has happened to both GPO and the Nation since then, Keeping America Informed: The U.S. Government Printing Office, 150 Years of Service to the Nation is a welcome addition to a relatively sparse collection of books on the subject. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the editorial group that worked on this book and I wrote several of the sidebars scattered throughout – whew, glad to get that off my chest!)

Perhaps because GPO still is at its original location at the corner of North Capitol and H Streets Northwest, just down the street from the U.S. Capitol, it has a remarkable collection of photographs of its buildings, equipment, and especially people. Those photographs really make this new book something special. It’s impressive and oddly moving to see the printers of a century ago gazing solemnly at the camera, “getting the books out” just as we do here today. For many readers, these images will put a human face on a little-known but vital aspect of the Government.

The text is impressive, too. In the 50 year since the last GPO history was published, a lot has happened. There are triumphs (the transition from hot metal to computer typesetting, the advent of the digital age and the Internet, GPO Access and the Federal Digital System) and frank discussions of controversial matters (the McCarthy era investigations of GPO, the 1968 riots that disrupted nearby neighborhoods). There is also more information on aspects of the more distant past, such as GPO’s reluctant role in Theodore Roosevelt’s abortive attempt to simplify the spelling of words in Government documents – and the editorial cartoonists had just as much fun with it then as they would now!

Since I’ve referenced my own peripheral role, I would be lax if I didn’t mention that George Barnum, GPO’s Historian, and Andy Sherman, our Chief Communications Officer, used both primary and secondary sources to turn what easily could have been a turgid “official history” into a clear, readable narrative. George also did a great job of selecting the photos. One of the book’s key sources was a series of articles diligently researched by Dan MacGilvray, a former GPO Historian. Dean Gardei’s book design skills contributed mightily and GPO craftsmen produced a first-rate final product, as always. To quote Don Ritchie, the Senate Historian, “Congratulations on all this work, it’s a great achievement.” 

Above all, Keeping America Informed does a masterful job of showing how GPO has used the best technology available to ensure the dissemination of Federal Government information to the American people – from the original printings of the Emancipation Proclamation and the UN Charter to online versions of today’s Congressional Record and the Federal Register. You can get a copy here.  It’s also available via GPO’s Federal Digital System here. As to which sidebars I wrote, I’d be interested in your guesses!

GPO, FDR, and The Malta Citation

March 4, 2011

On March 4, 1861 – exactly 150 years ago today – the United States Government Printing Office opened for business. On such an auspicious occasion, Government Book Talk examines a unique Federal Government document. Ordered by the President on the tightest possible deadline for a purpose of international importance, only one copy was created by GPO. It is also, as far as I know, the only GPO product ever reproduced in its entirety on a postage stamp. Here’s the story of the Malta Citation.

From 1940 to 1943, the British Crown Colony of Malta endured prolonged and brutal air attacks launched by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Axis was determined to bomb or starve the people of Malta into submission  to deprive Great Britain of a vital naval base and, in so doing, dominate the Mediterranean. Despite saturation bombing and near starvation conditions caused by submarine attacks on British supply convoys, the Maltese people carried on with exemplary courage until the Allied invasions of North Africa and Sicily ended this threat. To honor their resistance to Nazi aggression, King George VI awarded the George Cross to Malta and its people in recognition of an entire nation’s collective valor. In November 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided that America also should salute the people of Malta. He decided to visit the islands after the “Big Three” conference with Churchill and Stalin in Teheran and present the Maltese people with a citation that expressed the sentiments that Malta’s defense had inspired in the American people. The text was composed at the White House, but it fell to GPO to transform that text into an appropriate form.

The order for the Malta Citation was forwarded to GPO from the White House on November 15. Delivery was required not later than 3 p.m. on November 24 to meet the deadline for transport halfway around the world. The President suggested that the citation should be about 16 by 24 inches with lettering resembling that of medieval illuminated manuscripts. The details of color and design were left up to GPO. A complicating factor was secrecy. For reasons of security, the President’s visit to Malta could not be allowed to leak out. This combined need for speed, secrecy, and artistic excellence made the Malta Citation one of GPO’s most exacting and unusual wartime assignments.

The Malta project was assigned to GPO’s Division of Typography and Design. Its Director, Frank H. Mortimer, was given complete responsibility for the design and execution of the Citation. Because of the need for secrecy, and because only one copy was required, Mortimer decided to do the job by hand rather than experiment with type faces. He chose to work with genuine sheepskin parchment, feeling that its qualities of endurance and its capacity to retain freshness of lettering in both black and colored inks made it the most logical choice. He used steel and crow quill pens, drawing letters in the gothic style he had selected. Two sketches were prepared and submitted to the President, who chose the simpler version. Once the design was approved, Mortimer set to work. He used red and black inks for the 1-page text, with initials illuminated in blue, red, and gold. Pure gold leaf was used in the surrounding border, along with two fine lines of blue and red on the outside. An ornamental design consisting of the shield of Malta with the flags of the United States and Great Britain, all superimposed upon an aerial contour map of the main island, was placed above the text.

 To house the Citation, GPO’s Carpenter and Paint Shop produced a specially constructed case of solid, highly polished walnut, lined with royal blue plush. It was designed so that the right half contained the text while the left served as a cover. A weight to hold the parchment flat when the case was closed was placed inside the left half. This was produced in the GPO Bindery and consisted of laminated wood covered with dark blue morocco leather trimmed with lines in gold leaf and faced with the shield of Malta. Public Printer Augustus E. Giegengack personally delivered the completed citation in its case to the White House at 2:45 p.m. on November 24, beating the deadline by 15 minutes. On December 18 he received a letter from the President containing this tribute: “I wish to congratulate you and your craftsmen on the splendid workmanship displayed on the scroll which was presented by me to the people of the Island of Malta. It was very beautifully done, and I am sure we can all be proud of this product of our Government Printing Office.”

And the postage stamp? In 1956, Malta issued a stamp (left) that reproduced the Citation’s text, documenting  its importance to the Maltese and serving as a reminder of the huge variety and high quality of work that GPO has produced for the last century and a half. Happy birthday, GPO!

100 GPO Years Revisited

June 25, 2010

My agency, the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), usually is more concerned with getting information from other Federal agencies digitized, printed, posted, and disseminated than in publishing our own books – that’s been our job in the Federal Government for almost 150 years. When we do publish something of our own, such as our Style Manual, about which I blogged awhile back, it’s worthy of note.

That’s my lead-in to 100 GPO Years, 1861-1961, published to mark GPO’s centennial. I’m sure it didn’t make a particular splash in the world of books back then, but it’s a rare and beloved commodity for those of us who work here, or used to. After a brief history of pre-GPO public printing, replete with scandals and corruption (and that’s why Congress decided to establish GPO), the book chronicles GPO’s activities year by year. The growth of GPO paralleled that of the Federal Government, spurred on by the Civil War, two world wars, the Cold War, the New Deal, the Great Society, and all of the other historical developments that gave rise to America’s present status as a superpower. For all of these momentous chapters in our history, GPO was there, printing the Emancipation proclamation, the declarations of war for both world wars, the UN Charter, and innumerable other documents of our democracy. Remarkably, though, we’re still at the same location as we were in 1861, at the corner of North Capitol and H Streets NW in Washington, DC. Instead of one small building, there are four large ones, as well as facilities nationwide.

On June 23, 2010 – the 150th anniversary of the congressional resolution that established GPO – a reprint of 100 GPO Years was a centerpiece of the kickoff of GPO’s sesquicentennial celebration.  It’s a facsimile reprint, but with a new Foreword, an excellent index, and a colophon that describes the typefaces of both printings. On March 4, 2011, 150 years to the day after the inauguration of both GPO and Abraham Lincoln (it was the first day GPO was open for business), GPO will publish a new history. Until then, you can learn a lot about us by reading the straightforward narrative and sampling our unique historic photograph collection in 100 GPO Years. You can read the reprint on our anniversary Web site or purchase a copy here. Soon it will be available in Federal depository libraries nationwide. If you can’t wait, you can find the original printing  in some libraries.

Happy birthday to us!

Fun With the GPO Style Manual

April 15, 2010


It’s National Library Week, which prompted me to think about my favorite Government reference book – the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, which since 1894 has been the Federal Government’s  guide to form and style in printing and a standard reference for professionals in the field. Although I’ve used the Style Manual for years in a number of different jobs I’ve had at GPO, the real reason it’s my favorite is, I confess, that I’m a member of the GPO Style Board. For many months prior to the publication of the latest edition, our little group met for two hours each week to discuss spelling, capitalization, and the myriad of other details that collectively make up any book of this sort. The best part – it was a lot of fun. As one of the members said to me one day, “This is the high point of my week!” For a word person, spending time on this stuff was really a plum assignment. Some of my colleagues were old acquaintances, while others were new to me. The one thing they all had in common was a  depth of  knowledge and a dedication to producing the best possible product that was truly awesome. I also found out what a demonym is: “Demonym is a name given to a people or inhabitants of a place. ” (See Chapter 17, Useful Tables, Pages 332-334.)

My favorite new features of the 2008 edition: A list of information technology acronyms and initialisms; a chapter on capitalization  with totally updated examples of proper names (a lot of research went into this, believe me!); and a clean, contemporary new design and typeface, thanks to GPO Creative Services.

Despite my obvious bias in favor of the Style Manual, many other Government books and periodicals are worthy of inclusion in the library reference pantheon – you can find a few of them here.


March 30, 2010

Welcome to the U.S. Government Printing Office’s (GPO) Government Book Talk! Our goal is to raise the profile of some of the best publications from the Federal Government, past and present.  We’ll be reviewing new and popular publications, providing information about new publications in the offing, and talking about some out-of-print classics. The goal is to spotlight the amazing variety of Government publications and their impact on ourselves and our world – and have fun while doing it.

 About the agency: GPO opened its doors on March 4, 1861 and is part of the legislative branch of the federal government.  GPO employees have been Keeping America Informed on the documents of our democracy, in both printed and electronic form, for the last 150 years.  The agency produces the Congressional Record, Federal Register, the nation’s passports, and other Federal Government documents.

About the blogger: My name is Jim Cameron (not the movie director). I’m a long-time GPO employee, working mainly for the agency’s publications sales program in the areas of writing, editing, and outreach, but I also have a good deal of  experience with the Federal depository library side of the house. I’m a serious book person – my wife claims that I own several thousand books, but I’m sure that’s an exaggeration. My interests lie mainly in the areas of history and biography – perfect for someone involved with Government books.

But, as they say, enough about me. I’d like this online conversation to be as informative and enjoyable as one we’d have in a book club. If you have thoughts about a post, more information about a topic, or ideas about books to discuss, let me know. I see this blog not as a single voice, but as a community of book lovers, be those books print or electronic. Let the discussion begin!

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