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News | Feb. 1, 2017

History of the Federal Catalog System

By Chrissie Reilly, DLA Historian


The Defense Logistics Agency’s Logistics Information Services is responsible for the management and operation of the Federal Logistics Information System, which incorporates the data requirements for cataloging, supply and other logistics support for the Department of Defense, civil government agencies and participating NATO countries. 

The Federal Catalog System manual from 1959 acknowledged that government is “the most complex of all business organizations.” However, the modern system of a centralized agency like DLA, with comprehensive cataloging for items across the government, did not accidentally develop. Much like DLA’s Audit Readiness efforts, the federal catalog system was the result of concerted effort from thousands of employees throughout the federal government. 

The origins of the Logistics Information Services mission began more than a decade before the Defense Supply Agency, DLA’s predecessor organization, was founded.

Origins of a Consolidated Catalog System

Over a century ago, the Department of the Navy initiated the Naval Depot Supply and Stock Catalog in 1914. This was the closest thing to a uniform catalog system at the time. 

In the 1930s, supply and demand became more integrated as the assistant director of procurement, part of the Procurement Division of the Treasury, worked with the head of each agency to consolidate all items for the catalog into one list. 

That list underwent a few name changes over the next few decades to become the Federal Standard Stock Catalog. In 1935, this catalog had 155,000 items. 

An archival document from 1978 referred to this early catalog as “almost useless because its use was optional.” For example, the catalog and its supplements after 1935 had 350,000 items listed. Of these, 120,000 items were duplicates, meaning only 230,000 unique items were listed. This represented only 7.7 percent of the 3 million items used by all agencies of the federal government.

The Wild West of the Federal Catalog System

During World War II, an enormous number of new items came into the military supply systems, each of which had its own method of identification, classification and numbering for items of supply. These competing cataloging systems lacked uniformity and were largely unable to be used across platforms. 

As practical as the concept for a unified system was, it was not uniformly applied, as it was only used by the military services for some items, but not others. The Bureau of Supplies and Accounts, the Quartermaster Corps, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard used the system for the cataloging of general issue items (at least until the Quartermaster Corps bowed out to use its own system). The remainder of the government bureaus, services, the Ordnance Department of the Army and the Army Air Forces used one or more different systems of identification and classification. 

Duplication was both costly to the economy and dangerous to national security. In January 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instructed the director of the Bureau of the Budget to implement a U.S. Standard Commodity Catalog. The multiple systems were consolidated over the next several months, to include facilities and services in addition to the catalog itself. Agencies from throughout the government were to use the interim system to the fullest extent possible. 

While not yet a governmentwide catalog, it was extensive enough, and the U.S. Standard Commodity Catalog Board submitted a plan for a uniform Federal Catalog System to President Harry Truman in July 1946. 

Genesis of the Modern Federal Catalog System

The government finally met its goal of a centralized catalog — but it was only the beginning. Much as DLA’s Audit Readiness campaign has evolved into the agency’s Process Excellence initiative, the new catalog system needed further development and continued interdepartmental cooperation and joint working agreements to be usable and relevant to its proponents and customers. 

After World War II, a peacetime government recognized it would be better for agencies and departments not to compete for the cataloging, storage, acquisition and distribution of supplies.

The Federal Property and Administration Services Act of 1949, also known as Public Law 81-152, established the Federal Catalog System. The first federal stock number was assigned by the Army-Navy Munitions Board in 1949. 

A congressional resolution from 1950 declared the interests of national defense and effective personal property management demand that a single standard federal supply catalog be developed. 

Congress enacted Public Law 82-436, Defense Cataloging and Standardization Act, in 1952 to establish a single cataloging system within DoD to ensure economical, efficient and effective supply management. It further required that each item repeatedly purchased, stocked or distributed by the government have a unique identifier.

The law was primarily intended to streamline the supply process in DoD, but it also extended into civil agencies and even foreign governments.

So although the Federal Catalog System initiative was ahead of schedule in 1952 and 1953, the influx of over 1.25 million additional items from military and civilian agencies meant the cataloging took until 1956 to complete. During 1952, approximately 39,000 items per month were identified and assigned unique federal identification numbers. 

Indexing and Cross-Referencing

Indexing the Federal Supply Catalog, though time-consuming, was needed to make items easier to find. Creating the index was a step-by-step process going through the entire Federal Supply Catalog. It meant employees assigned to this project had to work systematically through different classes of supply. Food was indexed first, followed by clothing, then medical items. Other commodity areas followed, and all were indexed by 1952.

This indexing is still in place today. Customers can search for items by name, manufacturer, colloquial term or even function. In the early years of supply catalogs, this was not possible. 

As items were being ingested into the Federal Catalog System, a cross-referencing project was also underway to identify items by reference to manufacturers’ names and numbers, eliminate duplication, create interchangeability data and make it available across the complete federal enterprise. 

Defense Logistics Agency’s Role 

In 1958, DoD established a new agency in Washington, D.C., called the Armed Forces Supply Support Center, and gave it the responsibility for managing the Federal Catalog System.

DoD moved the Federal Catalog System and the Armed Forces Supply Support Center into the newly created Defense Supply Agency in 1961. The Armed Forces Supply Support Center then became the Defense Logistics Services Center and relocated to Battle Creek, Michigan. Advance elements arrived in mid-1962, and DLSC became fully operational in Battle Creek in January 1963. 

Thanks to the cataloging program, all similar items in the government are now described and identified the same way. From its beginnings in the First World War to its robust and efficient contemporary version, the federal catalog system helps government agencies operate effectively and in unison — thanks to the hard work of people at the Defense Logistics Agency.