Government Documents

To read the transcript of this video, go to Transcripts.

"For decades, librarians in all settings have known that government information is an integral part of their work. Examples include public librarians who assist users with consumer questions, job seeking, special queries at tax and election time, or applying for government benefits; community college librarians who discover that the Congressional Research Service offers the best concise overviews of controversial topics; academic librarians who are often amazed that a high percentage of their grand collections are in fact government holdings; law librarians who help users find government cases, legislation, and regulations; and medical librarians who have built an entire intellectual framework around the government-produced PubMed database" (Forte, Hartnett, & Sevetson, 2011, xv).

In 1995, the U.S. Government began an initiative to make government documents available online. As a result, many documents are now available for free through government websites. Most new documents are now digitally born. However when seeking older works, it may still be necessary to locate print copies.

Government Documents Defined

lawWhat are government publications? According to (Reitz, 2014),

"under Title 44, Section 1901 of the United States Code, a government publication is defined as "information matter" published as a separate document at government expense or as required by law. Section 1902 states that government publications, except those 'required for official use only or for strictly administrative or operational purposes which have no public interest or educational value and publications classified for reasons of national security,' are to be made publicly available to depository libraries by the Superintendent of Documents. The term is also used in a broader sense to include documents published by local, state, territorial, and foreign governments. See also: Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications."

According to (Reitz, 2014), government documents are

"publications of the U.S. federal government, including transcripts of hearings and the text of bills, resolutions, statutes, reports, charters, treaties, periodicals (example: Monthly Labor Review), statistics (U.S. Census), etc. In libraries, federal documents are usually shelved in a separate section by SuDocs number. The category also includes publications of other governmental bodies (state, local, territorial, foreign)."

Government publications aren't just related to political and military science. According to Brown (2014, 139),

"U.S. federal government documents are important to many academic disciplines. For example, social scientists track legislative issues and the workings of federal agencies in matters of human services, health, public policy and environmental issues, and scientists and engineers make use of numerous data repositories and technical reports."

In the past, libraries contained vertical files filled with brochures from government agencies on topics from tourism to food safety and shelves filled with government-printed books such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Increasingly, these types of materials can be accessed online or downloaded as e-books or apps for easy access. The US Government maintains 5300 domain names, so there are lots of choices.

U.S. Government Structure

Before jumping into the resources, spend some time thinking about the structure of the United States government. This will help you as you begin seeking information sources for your discipline area of interest.

The United States Government Manual

"is the official handbook of the Federal Government. This special edition of the Federal Register is currently updated to provide comprehensive and authoritative descriptions of the programs and activities of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. The Government Manual also includes information about quasi-official agencies, international organizations with U.S. membership, and Federal boards, commissions, and committees."

try itTry It!
Examine the organizational chart of the United States Government. You'll note the three branches of government along with the departments and other independent establishments and government corporations. Think about which areas might provide information in your area of interest.

Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

"is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government" (FOIA, 2015)

try itTry It!
Watch the videos on the About FOIA page.
Do a search on the Find page for a topic in your discipline of interest.
On the Reports page, explore some of the popular and most recent reports by users of FOIA.

Government Publishing Office

In 1861, the United States Government Printing Office (GPO) opened its doors as the agency focused on providing access to the country’s most important documents. However with its evolving mission to incorporate digital materials, apps, e-books and other technologies, it was time for a change. Section 1301 of H.R. 83 establishing appropriations for 2015 states that “The Government Printing Office is hereby redesigned the Government Publishing Office.” This new name, Government Publishing Office, reflects a shift from print media to a wide range of communication channels for public information. According to the GPO (2015),

"publishing reflects the increasingly prominent role that GPO plays in providing access to Government information in digital formats through the agency's Federal Digital System, apps, eBooks, and related technologies. The information needs of Congress, Federal agencies, and the public have evolved beyond only print and GPO has transformed itself to meet its customers' needs."

The largest publisher in the world, the United States Government issues a wide range of congressional documents, presidential papers, research studies, and more from agencies across disciplines.

In addition to publishing print materials, the GPO is actively involved with producing government websites such as STOPfakes.gov that help consumers learn about counterfeit and pirated goods. It also links to resources on copyright like the Taking the Mystery Out of Copyright interactive from the Library of Congress.

GovernmentBookTalk is GPO’s blog. It contains information about government information of interest to a wide range of audiences.

The GPO provides online access to government information from all three branches of government through the Federal Digital System (FDsys). This source searches 50 collections including Congressional Hearings, Congressional Record, and the Federal Register. It also includes official documents from committees. However it doesn’t include many agency publications. This is the best place to check for presidential documents, congressional information, and major publications such as the Federal Register or United States Code.

The Federal Register is the daily journal of the United States government. The site contains notes, proposed rules, final rules, and presidential documents. Sections including money, environment, world, science & technology, business & industry, and health & public welfare contain featured documents each day. It's also possible to browse major agencies or search for particular documents. The blog contains other timely information.

The Congress.Gov website contains legislation, the congressional record, committees, and members. A glossary and resources provide useful background information. United States Congressional Serial Set covers

"nearly every topic imaginable, including foreign relations and military conflicts, economic conditions, social issues, health and welfare, transportation and infrastructure, food and agriculture, and of course, government and politics. Researchers from all academic disciplines will be certain to uncover unexpected treasures within it's page" (Brown, 2014, 141).

Every state has an official government website. Go to the State Portals page for a list of links.

Library users seeking historical documents such as the Warren commission’s report on the assassination of President Kennedy, the 9/11 Commission Report, Civil Rights Act, and other high profile documents can access them through FDsys. In addition lesser known, but interesting acts and committee reports can also be located such as the Truth in Video Game Rating Act.

School and academic librarians can bring biography projects alive for students through the use of primary source documents about politicians and people in the public eye. Students looking for government resources associated with particular people including presidents, members of congress, and those who have testified before Congress can find information listed by people. For instance, there are more than 13,000 documents containing the name Martin Luther King, Jr. These primary source materials are an excellent way to address standards associated with informational reading and the use of authentic materials across the curriculum.

The Federal Citizen Information Center is located in Pueblo Colorado is part of the GPO. This center provides access to millions of publications including booklets, reports, and handbooks. While many of these are print publications, most are also available as free downloads.

The website allows users to search by category, format (i.e., print, PDF, e-reader, or online reading), and language. Categories such as animals, cars, going green, and health contain publications of interest to youth.

Read Costello, Barbara J. (2013). Free U.S. government databases for non-depository libraries. The Reference Librarian, 54(1), 1-22.

Government Librarianship

In some large libraries, the position of government librarian oversees the government documents collection.

The Federal Depository Library Program within the Government Publishing Office was founded in 1813 to provide access to government documents. It’s possible to visit one of the nearly 1200 physical libraries located nationwide. Go to the FDLP for a clickable map showing the locations. However, most librarians and their users will access documents through the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications. An easy-to-use search tool provides access to government publications from the various agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Food and Drug Administration. They also provide a suggested Core Collection for specific library types.

For librarians and students seeking ebooks specifically, include the term “ebook” in the search. The ebooks can be downloaded free of charge on various ebook reading devices. Most books can be downloaded in the ePUB, MOBI for Kindle, PDF, or iBook format.

The Government Information Division of the Special Libraries Association is a good place to go for information about the government information in libraries.

To learn about the newest US Government resources, LIKE the GODORT: Government Documents Round Table Facebook page from ALA.

If you're particularly interested in government documents, subscribe to GOVDOC-L.

If you'd like to follow a government information librarian blog, go to Gov-stuff 4 U or Rice University.

Major Starting Points

poisonWorking closely with the GPO, the U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies develops websites and apps to help connect information offered by the federal government to citizens. This agency oversees websites including USA.GOV and DATA.GOV.


The USA.GOV website is the starting point for accessing government information online. Users can do a search to identify information by service or government agency. Also, search by a particular type of information. For instance, a search for “infographic” brings up dozens of amazing government-produced infographics of topics ranging from energy efficiency to measles prevention. The Poison Peril infographic from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services shows information about how to prevent and treat poisonings.

The USA.GOV blog identifies the latest government sources. For instance, The Real Cost website from the US Department of Health and Human Services explores the impact of teen smoking on the body. The website includes text, photographs, video, and interactive elements such as built-in quizzes to involve users.

USA.gov is the web portal of the United States government. Their A-Z Index of U.S. Government Departments and Agencies is an easy way to locate organizations of interest. When seeking information for a particular audience such as students or business people, go to the Especially for Specific Audiences page.


With over 125 thousand datasets from dozens of government agencies, the Data.gov website provides data, tools, and resources students can use in their research. The data is organized into categories including agriculture, business, climate, consumer, ecosystems, education, energy, finance, health, local government, manufacturing, ocean, public safety, and science and research. Featured datasets are highlighted in each area.

The Food Access Research Atlas shows those areas of the United States with limited access to supermarkets and other access to healthy and affordable food. Users can display data by distance to stores and income to locate “food deserts” in cities and rural areas.


FedStats provides federal statistical information from over 100 agencies.


Census data from Census.gov can be used for many purposes. Many projects involve making comparisons between new and older statistics in order to identify trends or changes over time.

try itTry It!
Explore the major government starting point above. Identify three links that you think are most useful for your disciplines.

annetteLamb's Personal Connection
Keep in mind that federal government personnel are there to serve the public. That's you! If you have a question, don't hesitate to call or email any agency. You'll be surprised how quickly you'll get a response.

Locate personnel through their agency website. Look for the ABOUT page or CONTACT page for email addresses and phone numbers. Experts can be found in every field.

Although lots of information is online, there are endless reports that never make it to a web server. The only way to access this information is by contacting the department that generated the report or connecting with their public relations office.

Government Resources LibGuides

Many of the Federal Depository Libraries and along with other libraries have excellent subject guides focused on government resources. A few include:

Many agencies have their own libraries and provide access to a wide range of publications. For instance, the Pentagon Library provide lists of documents at Pentagon Library: Government Documents.

try itTry It!
Explore LibGuides focusing on government documents. Notice how they address (or don't address) your discipline.

Open Government Initiatives

In 2009, the President’s Open Government Directive required government agencies “to implement the principles of transparency, participation, and collection” including publishing government information online, improving the quality of information, and creating and institutionalizing a culture and policy of open government. This directive included a number of new websites with useful information.

The Regulations.gov website allows citizen to make comments on proposed regulations and related documents. User can follow the guidelines and submit their comments online as a comment or a PDF file. The website even provides tips for submitting effective comments.

The Sustainability Tool helps users learn about how to create efficient healthy buildings and environmentally-responsible purchasing decisions.

The USA Spending website allows students to find out how the federal government distributes money. Involve students in examining how money is spent in the local area by entering their zip code or state. Then, compare this to other regions of the United States. It’s also possible to see how much various agencies spend.

Government Resources for Youth

Ben’s Guide to U.S. Government has been dramatically updated. Sponsored by the GPO, this website is intended to inform youth about the federal government and government information.

The “About Ben & GPO” section includes multiple pages about Benjamin Franklin and his legacy of publishing information.

The “Learning Adventures” section is divided into three sections designed for ages 4-8, 9-13, and 14+. Each level provides age-appropriate resources that can easily be aligned with the Common Core. Links are provided to many primary source documents.

The “Games” section includes a Branch-O-Mania quiz to test knowledge of the three branches of U.S., government.

The “Parents and Educators” section provides links to websites for kids and educators. It also links to American Association of School Librarians (AASL) lesson plans associated with U.S. Government and aligned with the Common Core.

The “Citizenship” section provides information about civil and citizenship. It also links to resources for those who would like to become American citizens.

Read Lamb, Annette & Johnson, Larry (2015). The government publishing office: a new name for a new generation. Teacher Librarian Magazine, 42(5), 54-58.

Biographical Information

Regardless of your discipline of interest, the US Government provides information about people that can be useful in a wide range of information projects.

Many of the government agencies provide biography sections featuring government employees from those agencies such as the U.S. Department of State: Biographies. For instance, Caroline B. Kennedy is the U.S. Ambassador to Japan.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation website provides reports on famous people. The Vault contains released documents and reports that can be accessed through a search or by category. This includes people related to popular culture, Civil Rights, hot topics, and organized crime. Steven Jobs is a recent addition. These documents can provide interesting insights into the experiences of individuals.

The Central Intelligence Agency website also provides information about individuals such as “Spy Girl” Betty McIntosh. A second on World Leaders is of particular interest.


A patent is a grant of exclusive rights regarding an invention for a limited time. Patents are generally approved by a government agency. In the United States, the governing body is the United States Patent and Trademark Office under the U.S. Department of Commerce. Because patents are specific to the country in which they were granted, it's important to search for patents around the world. Unfortunately, language quickly becomes a barrier in these types of searches particularly when the language is Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. According to White (2009, 4114),

"patent literature is one of the oldest and most interesting forms of technical literature in the universe of sci-tech information."

Patents are a type of government document that cuts across disciplines. The U.S. Patents and Trademark Office website contains the most authoritative information.

Global portals include

Many subscription-based tools are available to assist those interested in patent information.

try itTry It!
Check out Google Patents. This is a quick and easy tool to access government patents. Check out the patent for the toilet paper roll (Google) and toilet paper roll (Patent Office) Google Explore the same patent through the US Patent Office website. Search for a particular type of tool, instrument, or term. Compare the interfaces and how information is presented.

To learn more about this fascinating area, browse Adams, Stephen R. (2011). Guides to Information Sources: Information Sources in Patents. 3rd Auflage. Walter de Gruyter. Available through IUPUI.
White, Michael J. (2009). Patents and patent searching. Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd Edition. Taylor and Francis.

annetteLamb's Personal Connection
I find patents endlessly fascinating. They're an information source that crosses every discipline. I'm particularly attracted to the technical drawings and notes.

For fun, the geek in me enjoys tracing the history of patents. I also like to connect patents to particular time periods to see how a patent reflects the particular era.

For example, a few years ago was the 100th anniversary of the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. I wondered what equipment was available for fighting fires at that time. When were fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, fire escapes, and other pieces of fire safety equipment available? Patent searches can address these types of questions.

International Publications

Jobe (2014, 165) has identified two broad categories for international organizations: international intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Search UNData for specific organization statistics.

Beyond the Government for Information

While you can often go directly to the government agency for information, in some cases you may end up using a source created by a non-profit or a subscription-based service that repackage the information. For instance, Social Explorer provide both a free and subscription version of these map-based census data.

Both open and subscription-based services provide access to government information.

Open Source Databases

An increasing number of organizations are providing organized access to government information at no cost to users.

Some organizations provide a limited amount of information for free.

Subscription Databases

Evaluation of Government Documents

Kathy Amen (2015) of St. Mary's University published the following reasons for looking for government information.

Multi-Agency Coalitions

Government agencies don't think in terms of humanities, social sciences, technology, or business. In many cases, multiple agencies work independently but also together to address important issues that span many disciplines. Disaster preparation is an example. Check out Disaster Preparedness.

Scenario Stumper
What has the American response been to the ebola epidemic?
This question involves looking at all aspects of the epidemic including humanitarian issues, language and communication issues, and political issues as well as scientific, health, and financial concerns.
Some examples of US and global government resources include
CDC: Ebola
Tackle Ebola
USAID: Ebola
Words Against Ebola
World Health Organization: Ebola
The Bottom Line: Many different agencies are involved with addressing concerns about Ebola.


Adams, Stephen R. (2011). Guides to Information Sources: Information Sources in Patents. 3rd Auflage. Walter de Gruyter. Available through IUPUI.

Amen, Kathy (2014). Why look for government information?

Brown, Christoper C. (2014). Research with U.S. Government Information. In P. Keeran & M. Levine-Clark, Research within the Disciplines: Foundations for Reference and Library Instruction. Rowman & Littlefield.

Cassell, Kay Ann & Hiremath, Uma (2012). Reference and Information Services: An Introduction (3rd Edition). Available through IUPUI.

FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) (2015). Available: http://www.foia.gov/

Forte, Eric J., Hartnett, Cassandra J. & Sevetson, Andrea (2011). Fundamentals of Government Information: Mining, Finding, Evaluating, and Using Government Resources. ALA Neal-Schuman.

Jobe, Margaret M. (2014). Research with International Organizations. In P. Keeran & M. Levine-Clark, Research within the Disciplines: Foundations for Reference and Library Instruction. Rowman & Littlefield. Google Preview available.

GPO (Government Publishing Office) (2015). GPO Is Now The Government Publishing Office. Available: http://www.fdlp.gov/news-and-events/2153-gpo-is-now-the-government-publishing-office

Guide to U.S. Government Publications (2014). Gale, Cengage Learning.

Morrison, Andrea (ed) (2008). Managing Electronic Government Information in Libraries: Issues and Practices. Chicago: American Library Association.

Reitz, Joan M. (2014). Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science. Libraries Unlimited. Available: http://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_a.aspx

White, Michael J. (2009). Patents and patent searching. Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd Edition. Taylor and Francis.

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