Official Gazettes— a History of Collecting Efforts in the United States

Official gazettes serve as key primary source documentation, publishing the legal notices, announcements, and legislation of governments around the world. Gazettes originated more than three centuries ago as many European countries sought to create a public record of laws, minutes of the proceedings of legislatures and other governing bodies, and comparable information. The practice of issuing gazettes was taken up by colonial and protectorate governments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and most countries continued this tradition—often mandated in their constitution—following independence.

Journal officiel de la République du Congo, February 7, 2013, CRL digital collections

Use of Gazettes in Legal Practice and Research

Often, information appearing in gazettes is not published elsewhere and does not appear in commercial indexes or compilations of session laws. In many instances the gazettes are the de facto source for the laws of a country that, while in force, have not yet been incorporated into a country’s legal codes. Legal codes are revised only periodically: in Europe more than 20 years can pass between codifications. In less stable regions that duration is often even longer. Hence, gazettes can serve as the statute of record and point of reference for jurists for a long time.

For example, in 2011, when the International Criminal Court charged Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi with crimes against humanity, the charges cited the gazette versions of laws passed by the regime limiting freedom of press and assembly as evidence of the regime’s crimes. Similarly lawyers working for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, prosecuting war crimes in the Balkans in the 1990s, researched and sourced the applicable Yugoslavian statutes against rape and genocide from hard copies of Yugoslav gazettes held by Harvard University Library.

Gazettes are most often cited as primary sources for the wording and language of laws passed. They can serve as a frame of reference for present-day legislation and legal reform, such as property claims litigation, or support of compensation through government reparations. They are also a source for research into the impact of those laws on society, revealing the historical development of laws and legal regimes over time. Gazettes can supplement studies on the evolution of government structures and hierarchies or the development of corporate law and commercial regulations. Gazettes provide extensive information useful in researching topics such as nationalism, educational development, or religious restrictions.

History of Gazette Collections in North American Libraries

Official gazettes were recognized early on by libraries as significant documentation for research and scholarship. The Law Library of Congress (LC) has collected official gazettes (among other foreign government publications) since the mid-nineteenth century; in 1912 they reported actively receiving 70 gazette titles.1 Likewise, the New York Public Library (NYPL) began collecting gazettes from the earliest days of its establishment in 1895. However, given the difficulty of securing reliable supplies, few other libraries have attempted to maintain comprehensive gazette collections. Supply challenges, combined with the volume, fragility, and specialized nature of the material, led libraries to explore collaborative strategies for making these resources accessible.

In 1956 NYPL began microfilming gazettes for 13 Latin American countries in cooperation with the Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations. In 1958 the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) Foreign Official Gazette Project (FOG) was initiated to procure copies of microfilm produced by NYPL on behalf of subscribing institutions. Modeled after the successful Foreign Newspaper Microfilm Project (FNMP), ARL’s FOG project selected the Center for Research Libraries (then the Midwest Inter-Library Center) to administer the project and to house a copy of the film for circulation to participating libraries. In 1960, NYPL expanded its filming to encompass gazettes from 100 countries. The program’s progress was routinely reported to the ARL Foreign Acquisitions Committee and communicated via the Farmington Plan Newsletter and ARL’s Foreign Acquisitions Newsletter.

The FOG microfilming project brought initial success. By 1963 the FOG project reported 35 subscribing libraries. Within five years, NYPL had undertaken filming of nearly 300 gazettes. From this project, CRL acquired approximately 3,000 reels of microfilm of gazettes published from 1958 to 1970. However, unlike the FNMP, the FOG program did not succeed in attracting an adequate subscriber base, and costs of ongoing acquisition and preservation exceeded subscription revenues received from participating institutions. The program was discontinued in 1971.

The FOG preservation effort was reinvigorated in 1973 through a renewed partnership between the LC and NYPL, with 175 titles targeted for ongoing filming. NYPL and LC agreed to share responsibility for filming gazettes: the LC focused on national gazettes from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, while NYPL concentrated on Europe, the British Commonwealth (except for India), and Sub-Saharan Africa.2

The NYPL/LC cooperative relationship lasted until approximately 1992, when NYPL determined it could no longer continue to participate in the project. NYPL invited CRL to take over its holdings. Between 1996 and 2000, NYPL gradually deposited much of its holdings of official gazettes with CRL. Deposits totaled 360 titles (equal to 6,300 bibliographic volumes) consisting of 11,500 reels of microfilm, 13,000 fiche, and 2,000 hard copy bibliographic volumes. Hard copy was retained for holdings of which no microform exists within the U.S.

Zimbabwean Government Gazette Extraordinary, June 16, 2006, text of Land Acquisition Act. CRL digital collections

In 1995 CRL launched a new cooperative effort to establish a retrospective collection of record for its official gazettes. The effort aimed to collect national level gazettes for all countries, establishing comprehensive holdings from inception through 1995. The CRL project was overseen by a Foreign Official Gazettes Task Force representing the interests of the CRL membership and major holders of gazettes in the U.S. To aid the effort, CRL and the Task Force created a union list of gazettes held by major institutions (including CRL, LC, Harvard, LA Law, NYPL, and later Michigan, holdings of the U.K. National Archives). A “FOG Database” was created to present consolidated information on approximately 650 official gazette titles. The database served as a tool for CRL acquisition, preservation, and eventually for digitization planning.3 The work of CRL’s FOG Task Force concluded around 2004.

The FOG Task Force frequently discussed digitization of CRL’s gazette collection, but strategies for achieving this did not emerge until 2010, when CRL and the Law Library Microform Consortium (LLMC) formed a “Global Resources Law Partnership” to digitize primary source legal documents in support of social science and humanities research. CRL’s official gazettes were among the priorities for digitization recommended by a joint CRL-LLMC advisory committee. In 2012, CRL completed cataloging the FOG collection. In total, CRL produced 582 records for titles published in 161 countries. Armed with more precise information to aid planning, CRL and LLMC prioritized materials in the collection for systematic digitization. Funding provided to CRL in 2014 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York enabled CRL to initiate that work.

CRL’s digitization of African and Persian Gulf gazettes has generated renewed interest in these materials. During the first year after launch of CRL’s open web repository, issues from gazettes published in Iraq, Libya, and Somalia were downloaded over 10,000 times. Librarians and subject specialists at libraries and archives in Africa and the Middle East have affirmed that CRL’s efforts are both welcome and sorely needed.

However, the ongoing effort to make government and civil society documentation accessible faces continuing challenges. CRL’s gazette collection remains incomplete. Researchers trying to access complete runs often must search across a variety of repositories. One library subject guide quips: “Researching foreign law in American law libraries is often like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle in the full knowledge that at least half of the pieces are missing.”4

If libraries hope to accumulate a “critical mass” of civil society documentation, greater effort to collect and expose information beyond official publications is necessary. African institutions responding to CRL inquiries suggested additional areas where libraries might pursue broader exposure of documentation, including:

  • Official communications from government ministries;
  • Compliance documentation;
  • Documentation of women’s rights and status;

Preserving and providing access to rare and endangered documentation of the actions of governments has been a consistent focus of action by CRL and its community of libraries since 1949. That effort will continue to generate benefits for scholars and researchers everywhere for years to come.

  1. W. Dawson Johnston and Isadore G. Mudge, “Special Collections in Libraries in the United States,” United States Bureau of Education Bulletin no. 23 (1912). fulltext/ED543047.pdf (Accessed November 8, 2016).
  2. New Foreign Gazette Microfilming Project Organized,” Foreign Acquisitions Newsletter, No. 37, Spring 1973. com/books?id=kR3pAAAAMAAJ (Accessed November 8, 2016).
  3. As of 2016, the FOG Database, though superseded, is still hosted by CRL for reference purposes at
  4. University of Houston “Locating Key Foreign & International Law Sources.“ locating.html Prepared by Tim Mulligan, Last revision: February 7, 2011 by Saskia Mehlhorn. (accessed November 8, 2016)