As an Association of Southeastern Research Libraries (ASERL), Center of Excellence (COE) for the State Department U.Va.'s Alderman Library is inventorying, cataloging, enhancing, and preserving its State Department collections.
Read more about ASERL’s Collaborative Federal Depository Program (CFDP) and the Centers of Excellence.
The Executive-branch department now known as the Department of State was created on July 27, 1789 as the “Department of Foreign Affairs.” Its name was changed to the “Department of State” in September of the same year.
The department’s primary mandate is foreign policy and diplomacy, as elucidated by the 2013 Government Manual:
The Department of State ... advises the President and leads the Nation in foreign policy issues to advance freedom and democracy for the American people and the international community. To this end, the Department compiles research on American overseas interests, disseminates information on foreign policy to the public, negotiates treaties and agreements with foreign nations, and represents the United States in the United Nations and other international organizations and conferences.
Diplomacy is all about “words,” so it makes sense that the State Department is a prolific publisher of information. This information is published in multiple media—in print, in microform, and online. This article will introduce you to some of the most important publications produced by State.
The State Department makes many of their publications—historical and contemporary—available online for use by the public. However, new presidential administrations tend to rearrange the organization of their departmental websites, so it may take a bit of investigation to find a particular document, even if you have found it online before. One helpful method when looking for publically available information that has moved is to identify the title under which the publication initially appeared. This can be done by consulting the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications (formerly the Monthly Catalog), Donna Andriot’s Guide to U.S. Government Publications, or WorldCat. Armed with the title of a print publication, you can search the internet for open access versions of the document, search the State Department’s website, or call the State Department library for assistance.
These are some of the major series of publications produced by State – covering foreign affairs, treaties, and personnel. As of January 4th, 2019, current editions of many of the State Department publications described here can be found on the department’s master list of publications online.
American State Papers: Foreign Affairs
For the first forty years of the United States’ existence, the documents of Congress went largely undistributed. In 1831, Congress finally decided that it was about time to republish—and, in some cases, publish for the first time—its documents so that “those who may desire […] be acquainted with the action of the Government, and the legislative and documentary history of the United States.”
To this end, Congress mandated printers Joseph Gales and William Seaton to compile these early documents into the American State Papers. The ASP comprised ten topical series, the first of which dealt with relations between the United States and foreign powers.
The ASP: Foreign Relations series covers the period of 1789 – 1817, and contains presidential speeches (including inaugural addresses, written and spoken), treaty communications, and other communications under the heading of foreign relations. As the precursor to the U.S. Congressional Serial Set and the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States, the American State Papers provides vital insight into the early years of the United States and its role in the world.
Foreign Relations of the United States – SuDoc S 1.1:
The series known as the Foreign Relations of the United States, or FRUS, began publication in 1861 and was one of the first endeavors of the then-newly created Government Printing Office. FRUS comprises documentation on U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy, today filling nearly 500 volumes. FRUS is organized chronologically by Presidential administration first, and then by topic. For example, the volume on relations with Vietnam during the Johnson administration is designated “1964-1968 [Johnson], v. 1, Vietnam, 1964.”
Much of the content of FRUS was originally classified, so FRUS volumes generally appear between twenty-five and thirty years after their publishing administration. FRUS provides documentary evidence (e.g., telegrams, letters, meeting notes, and other memoranda) on all sides of an issue, essentially giving the reader the documentation available to decision-makers at the time. The State Department makes the volumes available online, as does the University of Wisconsin.
United States Treaties and Other International Agreements – S 9.12:
Treaties and Other International Acts Series (TIAS) (Slip Treaties) – S 9.10:
Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949 (Bevans) – S 9.12/2:
These series contain treaties and executive agreements with other countries. In 1950 State began to issue individual “slip” treaties (TIAS) which are then reissued in the bound volumes of U.S. Treaties and Other International Acts. Prior to 1950, all treaties were printed as a part of the Statutes at Large though the existence of Bevans obviates the need to consult this resource.
Other Useful Publications
In addition to its important published series the Department, through the National Archives, makes available numerous series of “dispatches” (sometimes also spelled “despatches”). Dispatches are communications from U.S. embassies and consular offices around the world. For more on these see NARA Record Group 59 and the NARA microfilm catalog online. State has also published foreign language training materials, proceedings of international conferences, reports of international expositions (think, Chicago, 1893 and Saint Louis, 1904), Post Reports (what it’s like to live in a particular country), and Background Notes (general information about a country).
A few more useful publications are listed below.
Department of State Bulletin – S 1.3: (1939-1989)
Dispatch – S 1.3/5: (1990-1999)
Both publications reproduce important speeches and other communications from State Department officials. Similar to what nowadays would be included under “Press” and “Secretary of State - Remarks” on the State Department website.
Register of all Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States (a.k.a. Official Register of the United States) - S 1.11:
The Register, published by State from 1816 to 1861 and subsequently by Interior (I 1.25:), Census (C 3.10:) and Civil Service (CS 1.31:), lists every person who worked for the U.S. government, including the War Department, from 1816 to 1959. Includes birthplace and compensation.
Diplomatic List – S 1.8: (1893 to present)
Lists all foreign diplomatic officials in Washington, D.C.
Biographic Register - S 1.6: & S 1.69: (1860-1974)
Provides biographical information on State Department officials.
Decade of American Foreign Policy: Basic Documents, 1941-1949 – S 1.69:415
American Foreign Policy: Current Documents – S 1.71/2: (coverage: 1956-1967, 1981-1990)
American Foreign Policy: Basic Documents – S 1.71/2: (coverage: 1968-1980)
These publications pull together published foreign policy documents in an annual compilation.
United States Statutes at Large – S 7.9: & S 7.10:
Chronological publication of all the public and private laws passed by Congress. Published by the State Department until 1949 when the General Services Administration was created.
 The United States Government Manual 2013 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 2013), 266.
 Documents are declassified automatically, unless the particular document is exempt.