Inside GPO’s printing plant

An inside look at how the Government Printing Office works on a daily basis, including an audio slideshow of GPO\'s printing plant.

By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

The documents that help federal employees, lawmakers and lobbyists do their jobs everyday begin in the sprawling red brick building on the corner of North Capitol and H streets in Washington.

For 150 years, the Government Printing Office has been producing the government papers that have defined national policy and helped government function day-to-day.

When Congress is in session, GPO’s staff is working around the clock to ensure the Congressional Record is printed and online by 6 a.m. every day. And each day the federal government is open for business, GPO prints the Federal Register with agencies’ rules, proposed rules and notices. GPO also prints hearings, bills, executive orders and the budget.

“There’s not a private contractor, anybody in the industry, who can put up with the deadline, turnaround and demands that we do,” said John Crawford, GPO’s production manager.

Crawford started working at GPO 45 years ago as a journeyman bookbinder, coming from a family of GPO employees, including his grandfather, aunts and uncles. In his early career, the binding division alone had nearly 1,500 employees. Today, it has a little more than 200, Crawford said.

“I’ve seen us go from labor-intensive, heavy manpower equipment that takes a lot of skills to operate to move to now where we are in the digital age,” Crawford said.

GPO’s total staff is 2,200, about one-fourth of its size 35 years ago. The downsizing has been sped up by technology and, most recently, by budget cuts. The agency has asked for the authority to further reduce its staff by 15 percent through buyouts this year. The possible workforce cuts come as President Obama called for reductions in wasteful spending, particularly pointing to the paper printing of the Federal Register.

Despite technology’s role in increasing efficiency and rendering paper printing less necessary, much of GPO’s work still relies on manual effort and the human eye – whether it’s to get the information printed or online.

To prepare the Congressional Record, the pre-press division begins receiving paper manuscripts and digital files from the Hill in the evening and sometimes into the early morning hours. Proofreaders check the manuscript against the galleys.

“If you come in here at three o’ clock in the morning, you’ll see this place buzzing to get the Record out,” said Michael Abramson, foreperson for proof and copy markup.

Manuscripts are measured not in pages but in inches. A typical session of Congress can produce 12 inches of manuscript that, in the end, could be condensed to a booklet about half an inch thick, Abramson said.

“It’s a pretty intensive process but we do it every night and we have the personnel who can do that,” Crawford said.

The pre-press process accounts for 70 percent of the cost to print the Record and get it online. Even if GPO went all-digital, the agency would still have the cost of this 70 percent, Crawford said.

The actual printing cost is the smallest portion of preparing the Record, and over the years the number of copies printed daily has decreased from 20,000 in 1994 to 3,700 in 2011, according to GPO. Crawford pointed out the cost for GPO to print a document is 1.3 cents per page. If someone downloads a PDF and prints it themselves in the office, the cost is 7 cents per page, he said.

Crawford said he treats GPO like his business. The objective is to save taxpayers’ money by being as cost-effective as possible.

It takes an “army of people” to carry out the task, Crawford said. Then the next night, they do it all over again.


The GPO plant combines the business of printing legislative documents with the art of traditional bookbinding.

A fishy smell wafts from a yellowish liquid in a tray. It’s the glue base for the marbling process, where GPO employees dip book edges into colorful, swirling paint. The purpose is both for preservation and aesthetics.

“Very few people do that in the country anymore,” Crawford said of marbling.

In the library binding division, employees make book covers by hand. Like the marbling, the processes haven’t changed over time.

“You’re still using standing presses to press the books. They’re still going in the joint boards for the drying process,” said Walter “Butch” Wingo, assistant superintendent in the binding division.

This division binds special books, such as the Presidential Papers, and restores old books.

Crawford, trained in bookbinding, rarely uses his machine skills these days. But, he said, the training in the traditional craft still is useful.

“You gain those skills as a craftsperson but you never discount them. You always use them because you know what a product looks like,” Crawford said. “I can walk up to a book and tell you if it’s right or not.”

Technology has not yet caught up with the longevity of printing ink on paper, he said. The costs of purchasing digital presses would run into the millions of dollars. And then there’s the concern over security, Crawford said.

“I think it’ll be reduced but I don’t think it’ll ever go away,” Crawford said of paper printing.

“You still need books to be here when you and I are gone for 100 years … When you print that document, that journal, it’ll be there forever.”

Check out the rest of the 150 Years at GPO series:

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