Social Science: Government Documents

comp bookOver the past decade, the United States federal government has shifted from a paper-based to a digital system for information dissemination providing anywhere, anytime access to government information.

The introduction of new online tools and websites is providing easier access to information from a wide variety of government agencies. Librarians will find many of these new information sources useful in addressing the needs of information seekers.

Purdue University has produced Government Documents LibGuides. Explore some of the following areas:

Government resources are useful in many social science areas. Explore the following government information sources and think about how they might be used to address library client questions.

Anthropology and Archaeology

For those interested in anthropology and archaeology topics, there are a few government agencies with provides lots of resources:

Scenario Stumpers
I've been reading a lot in the news about people stealing artifacts from ancient ruins in the southwest. What's the National Park Service doing to prevent this?
Start with the National Park Service. The National Park Service maintains an Archeology Program that addresses these types of issues. Go to the Vanishing Treasures area to read about the problem and potential solutions.
The Bottom Line... The National Park Service is aware of the problem and has developed a Long Range Plan to address it. However, they face many obstacles in dealing with this complex problem.

Area Studies

From Canada to Australia, those interested in area studies will find government resources related to the work the United States is doing in various countries around the world.

The CIA produces the The World Facebook. This is an excellent source of information about countries around the world.

The African Development Foundation "promotes development and empowerment in Africa and enhances and strengthens U.S. relations with Africa through effective development assistance." (US Govt Manual)

The Inter-American Foundation "supports social and economic development in Latin America and the Caribbean." (US Govt Manual)

The Peace Corps "helps people of interested countries meet their need for trained men and women and promotes mutual understanding between Americans and citizens of other countries". (US Govt Manual)

The Foreign Assistance website "provides a view of U.S. Government foreign assistance funds and enables users to examine, research, and track aid investments in a standard and easy-to-understand format." Agencies include U.S. Agency for International Development, Peace Corps, U.S. Department of State, U.S. African Development Foundation, Millennium Challenge Corporation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Inter-American Foundation, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Department of Defense, and Department of Health and Human Services.

try itTry It!
Explore the The World Facebook. This excellent reference tool from the CIA is a good starting point for information about countries. Under the References Tab, choose Country Comparison. This is a great way to compare information among countries. Share three interesting comparisons that you found during your exploration.

Culture, Ethnicity, and Diversity

From research on the aging to information about Native American services, many government agencies are dedicated to issues related to culture, ethnicity, heritage and diversity within the United States.

The Department of the Interior "protects America’s natural resources and heritage, honors our cultures and tribal communities, and supplies the energy to power our future" (US Gov't Manual). Areas of interest include:

Library of Congress has many historical resources related to culture.

Equal Opportunity and Specialized Groups

Many of the government agencies provide information about equal opportunity and fostering understanding.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission "enforces laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information." (US Govt Manual)

The Corporation for National and Community Service "fosters civic engagement through service and volunteering." (US Govt Manual). It includes Americorp and Senior Corps.

The Commission on Civil Rights "collects and studies information on discrimination or denials of equal protection of the laws because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin, or in the administration of justice in such areas as voting rights, enforcement of Federal civil rights laws, and equal opportunity in education, employment, and housing." (US Govt Manual)

Seniors. The National Institute on Aging focuses on issues related to aging.

Although primarily focused on senior citizens, the Social Security Administration also deals with issues related to disability and aid to children.

People with Disabilities. Disability.gov is the "federal government website for comprehensive information about disability-related programs, services, policies, laws and regulations."

Native Americans. Go to USA.gov's Tribal Governments and Native Americans links.

Immigrants. Many cultural issues are associated with immigation. Go to Immigration Links for resources.

U.S. Military Personnel and Veterans. The USA.gov's U.S. Military Personnel and Veterans links are focus active duty military personnel and veterans.

Scenario Stumper
I have diabetes and I recently lost my leg below the knee. I've been assigned a service dog, but my apartment building doesn't permit pets. Can I keep it or do I need to move? If I leave, can I get my deposit back?
The Disabilities.gov website is a good place to start. Not only will it help address this question, but it may also help with other, related questions. The Americans With Disabilities Act is the source that will answer the question directly.
The Bottom Line... Understanding the Fair Housing Amendments states that "If your dog is a guide or service dog, your landlord must waive the policy and allow you to have a guide or service dog."

try itTry It!
Explore government websites related to a specialized group (i.e., immigrants, veterans, disabled, seniors). What types of questions could be answered using these resources? What's missing? List the website and URL along with three questions and answers.


Government resources are very useful in the study of demography. Many agencies provide data and statistics of interest.

FedStats provides federal statistical information from over 100 agencies.

The Census Bureau provides information on a wide range of topics from marriage and family to immigration. 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. The American Fact Finder is of particular interest.

Recovery.gov provides information about recent government programs.

Department of Housing and Urban Development "oversees our Nation's housing needs, ensures fair housing opportunities, and creates strong, sustainable, and inclusive communities" (US Govt Manual). The State of the Cities Data Systems from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have useful statistical information.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics is another source of data such as American Time Use Survey.

Scenario Stumper
I'm working on a research project focusing on economic recovery in different segments of society since the recent recession. What's the best source of data?
Start at Recovery.gov. This website is specifically designed to provide information about the recession and recovery.
The Bottom Line... Many government agencies provide statistics, but begin at Recovery.gov. Then, use sources like FedStats and others for more details.


The major source of government on education from the federal government is the United States Department of Education "ensures equal access to education; promotes educational excellence; and makes policy for, administers, and coordinates most Federal assistance to education with the aim of raising student achievement and readiness for the global future" (US Gov't Manual). Examples of resources include:

Scenario Stumper
I live in the midwest, but I've always wanted to go to college on the West coast. Where can I go to explore the possibilities?
Use College Navigator to explore colleges. One advantage of starting at a government website is that users can avoid being swayed by advertising.
The Bottom Line... begin at College Navigator to narrow the possibilities. Then go directly to the individual college websites for depth.


The United States Geographical Survey (USGS) is the primary government agency for information about geography. Example resources include:

The Library of Congress has endless geography and map resources.

US Census Bureau

Scenario Stumper
I want to hike part of the Appalachian Trail during Spring Break. I want to purchase US Topo maps for the areas along the trail. However, I'd also like to have electronic versions too.
The USGS coordinates creation and sale of the official maps.
The Bottom Line... the maps are published by the government, but it's also possible to download them for free.


Many government agencies house information of interest to historians. For example, History from the Food and Drug Administration focuses on the history of this organization.

The National Archives and Records Administration "safeguards and preserves the records of the U.S. Government, ensuring that the American people can discover, use, and learn from their documentary heritage. It establishes policies and procedures for managing Federal records; oversees the Presidential Libraries system; promotes civic education; and publishes the laws, regulations, Presidential papers, and other public documents" (US Govt Manual).

Scenario Stumper
I just found out that my 5th Great Grandfather was in the American Revolution. Now, I'd like more information. Where do I start?
If the library has access to Ancestry.com, use it. Next, go to the National Archives Military Archives page. If you really want to get serious, write for their military service records.
The Bottom Line... you can waste lots of time searching around the Internet for information. You're better off going directly to the geneaology databases, digital public records, or writing for service records.

The Library of Congress has endless historical resources.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum "maintains a permanent living memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and provides ways to document, study, and interpret the Holocaust" (US Govt Manual).

The National Park Service History is a starting point for history and the National Park Service. A few databases include:

Scenario Stumper
Our small town has a historic building we'd like to preserve. We are interested in getting information about how we officially get recognition as a national historic site so we can apply for preservation grants.
To become a national historic site, you need to be on the National Register. The National Register of Historic Places was authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and run by the National Park Service. The NPS Program Fundamentals page provides information about the process. However, the nomination process actually begins with your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) first.
The Bottom Line... There's lots of paperwork, but if you follow the procedures, you can get on the National Register of Historic Places. This will help you qualify for funding.

annetteLamb's Personal Connection
I enjoy learning about my family history. Norman D. Wilson was my Great, Great, Grandfather. He was from Illinois and served in the Civil War. It's amazing what you can find in government databases. Go to Civil War Soldiers and Sailor's Database and you can find him.

Norman was a member of the 134th Regiment, Illinois Infantry and was part of what was known as the 100 Day Program toward the end of the war.

Law and Political Science

Major users of government information are those individuals interested in law and political science. Resources can be found in all three branches of goverment.

Library of Congress has many historical resources related to law and politics.

Legislative Branch

The major source of information on the legislative branch is congressional sources. Examples include:

Scenario Stumpers
I'm upset about some upcoming legislation and want to talk with my US Senators. How do I find their contact information?
Go to The United States Senate. Choose the state and the senators will be listed along with links to their contact information. In most cases, there's a traditional mail address, a phone number, and a place to write email.
The Bottom Line... you're not likely to be able to talk with the Senator directly, however you can express your opinion and in some cases learn about their positions at their website. If you leave your phone number, one of the senator's staffers may call you back. If you ask a question by email, you're likely to get a generic response, but it some cases you'll get a personal email back from a staffer.

Judicial Branch

The Department of Justice "serves as counsel for the citizens of the United States and represents them by enforcing the law in the public interest. It fills a key role in deterring criminality and subversion, ensuring healthy business competition, safeguarding consumers, and enforcing drug, immigration, and naturalization laws" (US Govt Manual). Examples include:

Scenario Stumper
I'm working on a class project related to student protest and free speech. I know that there's a Supreme court case from the 1960s about some teens who wrote black arm bands to school. Can you provide information about this case?
Unfortunately, many of the government websites have poor search tools. Rather than going directly to the Supreme Court of the United States or US Courts, you may want to try a Google search. If you enter students black arm bands supreme court, the case comes right up with Wikipedia as the first entry. After using this as background information, go to the United States Courts link for more details and links to related to cases. The Oyez Project is a nonprofit website that provides government information.
The Bottom Line... Sometimes Google is the best way to access government information because of the poor search tools found in government websites.

Congressional Research Service Reports are available through many law libraries. For instance, CRS Reports - Thurgood Marshall Law Library (Available through IUPUI) contains over 400,000 volumes of Anglo-American legal materials as well as outstanding international and foreign law collections.

Executive Branch

Much of the information from the executive branch begins at the Whitehouse. However, it's also useful to check out the many departments.

Scenario Stumper
I enjoy featuring special days, weeks, and months in my classroom. I understand that the president makes announcements about these things. Where can I find this information?
The Whitehouse website posts Presidential Proclamations that announce these special events.
The Bottom Line... Proclamations are generally made on the special day or at the beginning of the week or month. If you want to plan ahead, go back through last year's proclamations. They're likely to be similar from year to year.

General Resources

The Federal Election Commission "provides public disclosure of campaign finance activities and ensures compliance with campaign finance laws and regulations" (US Govt Manual).

Scenario Stumper
Is it really a crime to point a laser pointer at an aircraft?
The Federal Aviation Administration is the place to go regarding public laws associated with aviation issues. The Laser Safety Initiative provides details about the concern. The Laser News, Laws, and Civil Penalities page features lots of information about the law and how it is being applied.
The Bottom Line: Yes, you can get in big trouble!


Many departments and government agencies provide law information and services. The Legal Services Corporation "promotes equal access to justice and provides civil legal assistance to low-income persons" (US Govt Manual).

A good starting point for law information is the Law Librarians' Society of Washington DC .

Scenario Stumper
Is the Ferguson Police Department investigation report available?
The Department of Justice makes high visibility reports available including the Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department report.
The Bottom Line: Yes, you can read the report.

Library and Museum Science

For those interested in library and museum science, go to the Institute of Museum and Library Services "creates strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas" (US Govt Manual).

The Open Data section of the website provides a comprehenstive inventory of programs and information about public libraries, state library agencies, and museums. The IMLS Data website is the starting point for information.

Scenario Stumper
I'm interested in comparing my library's circulation statistics with others. Where can I find this information?
The Open Data section maintains that IMLS Data website. You can do a search or go directly to an online spreadsheet.
The Bottom Line... yes, this data is available. It's been collected annually since 1988.

Diplomacy, Military & Security

Many government agencies provide information about security and diplomacy. However, the primary place to go for miltary information is the United States Department of Defense.


The United States Department of State "advises the President and leads the Nation in foreign policy issues to advance freedom and democracy for the American people and the international community. To this end, the Department compiles research on American overseas interests, disseminates information on foreign policy to the public, negotiates treaties and agreements with foreign nations, and represents the United States in the United Nations and other international organizations and conferences." (US Govt Manual)

The UN's 70 documents, 70 years document is a great place to begin your exploration of international issues.

The United States Institute of Peace "prevents, mitigates, and resolves violent conflicts around the world by direct engagement in conflict zones and providing analysis, education, and resources to those working for peace." (US Govt Manual)

Scenario Stumper
I've been invited to speak at a conference in Andorra. I don't know anything about this country. Is it safe for Americans? Is there an embassy there? Do we have diplomatic relations with this country?
The Department of State handles these types of questions. County profiles are available with this information. There's a 2013 Fact Sheet on Andorra. There's also a Country Page.
The Bottom Line... Yes, it's safe. The country is between Spain and France. It's a sovereign parliamentary democracy. The U.S. Embassy is in Madrid Spain which is close.


A number of agencies are involved with national and international security.

The Department of Homeland Security "enforces and administers our Nation's immigration laws, ensures resilience in the aftermath of disaster, enhances security to prevent terrorism, and safeguards and secures cyberspace" (US Gov't Manual).

Check out a LibGuide on Homeland Security.

Explore the Homeland Security Digital Library.

The Central Intelligence Agency "collects, evaluates, and disseminates vital information on political, military, economic, scientific, and other developments abroad needed to safeguard national security" (US Gov't Manual). This agency produces the The World Facebook.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence "oversees and coordinates the foreign and domestic activities of the Intelligence Community across the Federal Government" (US Govt Manual).


The MilitaryOneSource is the starting place for military information.

The United States Department of Defense "provides the military forces needed to deter war and protect our Nation's security and interests" (US Gov't Manual). For specific areas, go to

The Selective Service System "supplies the Armed Forces with manpower in an emergency and operates an Alternative Service Program for men classified as conscientious objectors" (US Govt Manual) .

United States Department of Veterans Affairs "operates programs to benefit veterans and members of their families. Benefits include compensation payments for disabilities or death related to military service; pensions; education and rehabilitation; home loan guaranty; burial; and a medical care program incorporating nursing homes, clinics, and medical centers" (US Govt Manual).

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board "reviews and evaluates the content and implementation of standards relating to the design, construction, operation, and decommissioning of the Department of Energy's defense nuclear facilities" (US Govt Manual).

Psychology and Sociology

Psychology and sociology are related to many aspects of government work. Most information can be found at the state level.

For information about domestic assistance, go to Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance.

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