John Kelly's Washington

A field trip to see Government Printing Office's birth certificate

The 1860 resolution that created the Government Printing Office is examined by David S. Ferriero, left, archivist of the United States; Robert C. Tapella, public printer of the United States; and Trevor Plante, chief of reference at the National Archives.
The 1860 resolution that created the Government Printing Office is examined by David S. Ferriero, left, archivist of the United States; Robert C. Tapella, public printer of the United States; and Trevor Plante, chief of reference at the National Archives. (By John Kelly/the Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

There was a field trip vibe Tuesday morning as the Public Printer of the United States climbed into a black Tahoe hybrid that idled on North Capitol Street. He was going to see the Archivist of the United States, who had pulled something special from the vaults to show him.

"Today we're going to look at Joint Resolution No. 25, from June 23, 1860, signed by President Buchanan," said the public printer, Robert C. Tapella, "Bob" to everyone in the Tahoe, who besides the driver and me included Bob's special assistant, his public relations manager, a still photographer and a videographer. This would be a well-documented field trip.

But then again, if federal documents are your thing, this was a big deal. Joint Resolution No. 25 created the Government Printing Office. The GPO -- a billion-dollar agency that produces everything from the Congressional Record to Obama's official photograph to "La Historia del Oso Smokey" (the story of Smokey Bear in Spanish) -- is gearing up for its sesquicentennial. Bob had never laid eyes on his agency's birth certificate.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything signed by President Buchanan," Bob said as the Tahoe headed west.

Driver Kevin Banks pulled in front of the National Archives' Constitution Avenue NW entrance and everyone rolled out of the SUV. We waited for a while in a line for school groups, before someone realized that we were supposed to go to the other side of the building. We rounded Pennsylvania Avenue, and there waiting for us, like a party host eager to greet his first guest, was Archivist David S. Ferriero, most recently of the New York Public Libraries but before that the head of Duke University's libraries.

"David, you have money on the game?" Bob asked.

David smiled.

Into the archives we went, down a hall, up an elevator, down another hall, till we came to a door marked "Old Military and Civil Records."

"You all have to sign in," David said. "That's in case there's something missing from the vault."

Everyone -- aides, photographers, press staff, columnist -- used a government-issue black ballpoint pen to sign the form on the clipboard to which the pen was chained: NA Form 14004 (7-93).

"We printed that," Bob pointed out.

The vault was cool and dry. Along one wall were light-gray boxes of the sort that might hold old Consumer Reports or Road & Tracks. They were labeled "Treaties and Other International Acts Series." Another shelf was stacked with long shallow gray boxes marked "1st Congress, June 1789." On a set of low metal filing cabinets ("Indian Treaties") was a large book bound in red leather. It was exactly the size of the box a Blu-ray disc player comes in.


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