by Richard Mikulski, Government Documents and Reference Librarian

War Camels-croppedAs Americans headed west throughout the 19th century, the United States military faced a logistical issue that was previously unimagined: how to move troops alongside civilians as they crossed into rugged desert terrain. In 1855, the War Department embraced this daunting challenge and a unique solution: camels. Congress commissioned a lengthy (238 pages) study on the idea: Reports upon the Purchase, Importations and use of Camels and Dromedaries, to be Employed for Military Purposes. Published in 1857 and written under the supervision of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (yes, that Jefferson Davis), the study included intricate drawings, diagrams and details about the potential military use of the humpy, often grumpy, four-legged animals.

Davis’s incredibly thorough report on drafting camels into the military is just one of many fascinating government publications held by the Drew University Library. Since 1939, Drew has been a member of the Federal Depository Library Program, which entitles it to receive free publications from the Government Publishing Office (GPO). In addition to the Congressional Record, federal laws and committee reports, the GPO is responsible for publishing the materials of every government agency, including (but not limited to) the Agriculture Department, Department of Defense, Education Department, Federal Trade Commission, Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, NASA, the Office of the President, the Smithsonian and the Supreme Court.

The seventh-oldest depository in New Jersey, Drew has developed a government documents collection of over 450,000 items, including records from the first United States Congress in 1789 right through the present. It is impossible for me to identify all the historically significant materials in the Depository, but a few are gems include: the Treatise on the Rearing of Silk-Worms (1828); The Criminal Insane in the United States and in Foreign Countries (1898) and the Hearing before the Committee on Immigration (1902). Drew also holds detailed U.S. Census materials from the 19th century through the present.

In addition to its historical content, the Government Documents Library is a living collection, with contemporary materials delivered each week. Congressional studies regularly enhance the Drew collection, as do reports from NASA, the Department of Education and the National Parks Service, with subject matter that ranges from distinguished (Tour of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, NASA, 2016) to disreputable—witness the recent Review of the unauthorized disclosures of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden (Dec. 23, 2016).

Whether browsing through the 1900 U.S. Census, where agents were instructed to collect statistics on deafness, insanity and juvenile delinquency, or brushing up on Uzbekistan via the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, the Federal Repository at Drew offers access to the full range of government publications—war camels and all.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Visions, the Library Newsletter.

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