WSU News

Exhibit shows ‘lighter’ side of U.S. Printing Office

PULLMAN, Wash. – In 1984, the U.S. Government Printing Office published a report for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration detailing the work of the agency’s vehicle research and test center. But the title, “State-of-the-Art Dummy Selection,” left readers with an entirely different impression.
 
“Someone didn’t have an editor, and the title slipped right by,” said Marilyn Von Seggern, government information librarian at Washington State University Libraries.
 
Von Seggern is co-organizer of a new exhibit this month in the Terrell Library atrium that pokes fun at this and other humorous or puzzling publications that have come from the GPO’s 150-plus years of operation. Taking a cue from its own tongue-in-cheek contents, the exhibit is titled “Uncle Sam’s Believe It or Not: The Lighter Side of the Government Printing Office.”
 
Unintended titles aside, the GPO has followed the arc of the federal government’s history, through three major wars and sweeping technological changes in printing, from the web rotary press to machine typesetting to digital printing. The office opened for business on March 4, 1861, the same day as President Abraham Lincoln’s swearing-in, according to the GPO website (http://www.gpo.gov/newsroom-media/historyscript.htm).
 
As the primary printing agency for all three branches of the federal government, the GPO sells government publications and makes them available to roughly 1,200 libraries nationwide participating in the Federal Depository Library Program. It also provides permanent public access to federal government information at no charge through its Federal Digital System (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/).
 
The GPO also publishes on a wide array of topics, as varied as the many agencies that make up the government.
 
“The Government Printing Office is more than just tax forms, records of legislative processes, and executive actions, statistics and regulatory manuals,” said library and archives paraprofessional Wendy Blake, also an exhibit co-organizer. “Our cultural heritage sites are documented, and stories are told of all different sorts of people who helped build this country.
 
“There are dedicated, caring people in all sorts of government agencies doing their best to take the information that the government has collected and put it into the hands of people who need it to do their jobs more effectively and live their lives better,” she said. “Sometimes, they get to let their sense of humor show in the process.”
 
Even in its relative infancy, the GPO ruffled feathers with its choice of words. The GPO website describes how in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt instructed GPO head printer Charles Stillings to adopt simplified spelling for 300 common English words. The decision came from a recommendation by a panel of language experts commissioned by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
 
“The spelling of “T-H-R-U” for “through” and “FIXT” for “fixed” immediately drew the wrath and ridicule of citizens and newspapers across the country, and Congress terminated the experiment by the end of the year,” according to the GPO website.
 
Von Seggern, Blake and library and archives paraprofessional Janet Feldner have worked for several months to research and print examples of more GPO gems for the exhibit. Some favorites, running the gamut from poorly worded titles to homages to comics and the quaintly old-fashioned, include such titles as:
 
• Health Effects of Pesticide Use on Children (U.S. Congressional hearing, 1989).
• National Money Laundering Strategy for 2000 (U.S. Departments of Justice and the Treasury, 1999).
• Sprocket Man (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1994).
• Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011).
• Winning School Fallout Shelter Designs (U.S. Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 1963).
• Public Dance Halls: Their Regulation and Place in the Recreation of Adolescents (U.S. Department of Labor, Children’s Bureau, 1929).
Feldner liked “Sprocket Man,” a comic book treatment for bicycle safety tips, because it was so unexpected. “Not all government documents are dry and boring,” she said.
 
Exhibit visitors, stopping by the display case during a break, seem to agree. Chuckles erupt spontaneously as they read the titles and pages.
 
“I think it’s wonderful that they’re bringing light to these documents,” said Ashlyn Wedde, a WSU molecular plant science graduate student. “A lot of people aren’t exposed to these kinds of things.”