Superintendent of Documents (SuDocs) Classification Scheme

Superintendent of Documents Classification is a system of library classification developed in the office of the Superintendent of Documents of the United States Government Publishing Office (GPO) at the turn of the 20th century. It is based on a scheme conceived by Adelaide R. Hasse for organizing U.S. Government publications at the Los Angeles Public Library in the 1890s, and brought to GPO by Hasse during her relatively brief tenure as librarian in the Public Documents Library, 1895-1897. Credit for the development and implementation of the scheme as in use to the present probably goes to William Leander Post, Superintendent of Documents from 1906 to 1909, and a librarian in the Office before and after. Post describes the scheme in 1902, as preface to the publication of the first completed part, the List of Publications of the Agriculture Department 1862-1902.

The classification grew directly from GPO's need to organize a large and rapidly growing mass of Government publications. From its application in GPO’s Public Documents Library (now no longer in existence), the scheme was later adopted by the majority of significant collections of publications in Federal depository libraries, although its use has always remained optional.

The attribute that distinguishes the scheme from other systems of library classification (the most common of which, Decimal Classification and Library of Congress Classification, were developed only a short time before SuDocs) is its reliance on the origin of the document (its provenance) as the major organizing feature, rather than an arbitrarily determined subject. This principle more closely resembles archival principles (the respect pour les fonds) than the impulse of late 19th century librarians to classify the world's knowledge by topic. Since Government information viewed through the lens of subject classification is condensed into narrow, and thereby less specific, categories, treatment by provenance has proved more flexible, expansive, and descriptive for collections of all but the smallest size or scope.

Hasse and Post determined that the most readily determined descriptor for Government publications was their origin or authorship, generally expressed not as a personal author but as agency, bureau, or office. In the scheme, each department in the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative Branches, and each independent agency, is assigned an alphabetic symbol, generally although not strictly, mnemonic; thus, A is Agriculture Department, C is Commerce, S is State Department. In later practice two- and three letter symbols have been used as necessary, so FS for Federal Security Agency (in the 1930s), HE for Health, Education, and Welfare, later transferred to Health and Human Services, NAS for NASA, and HS for Homeland Security. Congress and its committees and commissions are designated X and Y.

Basing the classification on the current federal government organization causes a problem when agencies and bureaus are created or relocated. For example, the Department of Homeland Security was established in 2002, and took bureaus/subordinate offices from Treasury, Defense, Justice, and several others, as well as incorporated the formerly independent agency FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration).