img_0003The GPO is pretty immense. It has four buildings, and occupies a full block and more just next to Union Station in Washington, DC. They also have (or had in 2012) leased warehouses in Laurel, Maryland and Pueblo, Colorado, a passport production backup facility in Stennis, Mississippi, and printing procurement offices around the country.

Visiting is a bit like taking a trip back into the fifties: they certainly haven’t aimed at outreach. You are not allowed to visit the print works “as this is a secure facility”, which I guess is fair enough, though some sort of visiting arrangements could surely be arranged without jeopardizing our nation’s security. They must have endless empty space up there, though they have been trying to rent out some in recent years. What you can visit is the bookstore, and their exhibition “Keeping America Informed”, which is based on their book of the same title, which can be seen here as a pdf. This contains some interesting old photos showing the masses of workers they used to employ.

In the early years of the republic printing was contracted out, but by the 1840s so much was being spent that the decision was made to take it all in-house. The Government Printing Office opened its doors on the day of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. Unlike most government departments the GPO works not by appropriation, but by selling its work to the various branches of government which deal with it, and of course by selling its products to the public. The head of the organization rejoiced in the job title “The Public Printer”. This office is held now by Davita Vance-Cooks, the first woman to hold the job — and also the last, as the GPO was renamed Government Publishing Office in 2014, and she’s thus now its more prosaically named Director.

As of 2013 the print run of the Federal Register was 2,500, down from 300,000 in the late 20th century: a lot of presses have clearly been standing idle, and a lot of workers have been offered (and have taken) severance packages. Even though over 95% of government documents are digitally originated, and many may never be printed, the GPO contracts out quite a bit of work (almost ⅔ in 2012), though almost all Congressional work is printed in-house. Production of passports appears to be the fastest growing and most profitable bit of their business. However, in general they labor under familiar burdens: aging equipment, appropriate to conditions no longer obtaining, excess staff, staff skilled in the “wrong” things, and a customer reluctant to countenance price increases (and with the power to enforce this!).

The GPO provides print and digital editions of the Congressional Record, bills, hearings, reports, and other legislative branch documents, the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations. Through a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Department of State, GPO produces passports for Americans. Since 2008, the agency has expanded its offerings to include secure credentials, such as smart cards.

They have enjoyed a recent surge in demand for their pocket Constitution, brought into prominence by Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention and D. Trump’s inexplicable reaction thereto. They had been selling 25 copies a week but on a single day after the Convention they sold 2,000. Another of their popular titles is their Style Manual. (For those keen to do a detailed comparison with the Chicago Manual of Style, here’s a link to a pdf, though a Google search will show you the someone has already done this!) Their exhibition includes this hot metal page from the Style Manual showing a table:


This Washington Post article talks about their somewhat belated efficiency update. In 2014 NPR’s Morning Edition ran this interview with Ms. Vance-Cooks about the changes at the Government Printing Office. Dragging a labor-intensive, capital-intensive business into the 21st century where less labor and different capital investments are needed is clearly a horrendously difficult task.