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Government Information Research Guide

The United States federal government provides information and statistics on many subjects that can be useful when doing research in the social sciences and other subject areas. This guide focuses almost exclusively on United States federal government documents useful for social science research.

As with all information, remember to evaluate the appropriateness and accuracy of the government information you locate, and to think critically about the materials. When in doubt about the progress of your research remember to check with your instructor or research advisor.

Historical Context & Access

The history of United States federal government documents provides the context to understand why and how the documents are produced.

  1. During the federal era and the early republic (1789-1820) most of the information produced by the United States government was either reported by the Executive branch and sent to Congress, the Legislative branch, as stipulated in the Constitution, or produced by Congress itself. In 1813 Congress passed a law to authorize the systematic printing of government materials, such as House and Senate journals, and required the publications to be sent to selected academic and state libraries.
  2. Beginning in 1817 this government material was grouped together periodically and published in what was popularly known as the Congressional Serial Set. As a set it also began to contain documents produced by the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congressional Serial Set eventually became known as the United States Congressional Serial Set or more simply as the U. S. Serial Set. See the Publications > Catalogs & Bibliographies section of this guide for information on accessing the Serial Set.
  3. Legislation in the 1850s established the framework for the modern government printing system. A Superintendent of Public Printing, within the Department of the Interior, was authorized to print and distribute government materials. The Printing Act of 1860 established the creation of the United States Government Printing Office (USGPO), transferring this responsibility to the legislative branch. An act of 1869 created the position of Superintendent of Public Documents, yet still within the Interior Department.
  4. The General Printing Act of 1895 streamlined the previous legislation governing the printing of government materials and their distribution to libraries and other organizations. It also transferred the position of Superintendent of Public Documents to the Government Printing Office (GPO).
  5. Although it was expected that government documents were accessible to the entire general public it was not until 1962 that Congress passed the Depository Library Act requiring depository libraries to allow ALL members of the public to have access to government documents.
  6. "Enacted on July 4, 1966, and taking effect one year later, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions. A FOIA request can be made for any agency record." The Office of Information Policy (OIP) of the Department of Justice promotes government wide compliance with FOIA. FOIA guides are available from numerous government agencies, such as the National Archives, the National Security Archive at George Washington University, and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
  7. Federal government documents are distributed free of charge to designated libraries throughout the nation through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). The general public can visit federal depository libraries and access government documents free of charge.
  8. In 1976-77 the United States government began to publish in non-print formats. In addition all bibliographic records for government documents began to be entered into the OCLC catalog (WorldCat) for easier access.

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Classification of Materials

The Superintendent of Documents Classification System (SuDoc) is how government documents are cataloged, organized, and shelved. Here is an example for the County and City Data Book, a supplemental publication of the Statistical Abstract. Its SuDoc is C3.134/: 2: C83/2 2012:

C Department of Commerce
3. Bureau of the Census
134/: Statistical Abstract of the United States
2: Supplement
C83/2 County and City Data Book
2012 2012 edition

Libraries who participate in the FDLP collect all government publications or selected ones. A selective depository's collection is governed by the selections it makes from the List of Classes, which serves as a subject guide to the government's publications. Another useful tool for collection decisions is the List of Essential Titles for Public Use in Paper or Other Tangible Format.

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Listing of Materials

  • The Catalog of United States Government Publications is the traditional printed catalog which lists federal documents. See the Publications > Catalogs & Bibliographies section of this guide for more information.
  • PAIS International (Public Affairs Information Service) is a printed bibliographic index (Periodicals, Abstracts, by title, 1991 to 2001), also available as a database, which covers multiple documents types in public affairs and international politics. See the Publications > Periodical Indexes section of this guide for more information.
  • The HathiTrust Digital Library is a free web resource which holds 1 million+ U. S. government documents. See the Publications > Catalogs & Bibliographies section of this guide for more information.

For More Information

For the creation of this guide the following resouces were useful:

Fundamentals of Government Information (ZA5055 .U6 F67 2011)
Forte, E., Hartnett, C. J., & Sevetson, A. L. (2011). Fundamentals of government information: Mining, finding, evaluating, and using government resources. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
Introduction to United States Government Information Sources (Ref. ZA5055 .U6 M67 1999)
Morehead, J. (1999). Introduction to United States government information sources (6th edition). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Reference and Information Services (Ref. Z711 .C355 2013)
"Answering Questions about Government and Related Issues - Government Information Sources." In Cassell, Kay Ann, & Hiremath, Uma, Reference and information services: An introduction (3rd edition), (pp. 243-260). Chicago: Neil-Schuman.
Reference and Information Services (Ref. Z711 .R443 2011)
Forte, E., & Mallory, M. (2011). "Government Information and Statistics Sources." In Bopp, R. E., & Smith, L. C. (Eds.), Reference and information services: An introduction (4th edition), (pp.637-714). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
Tapping the Government Grapevine (Ref. ZA5055 .U6 R63 1998)
Robinson, J. S. (1998). Tapping the government grapevine: The user-friendly guide to U.S. government information sources (3rd edition). Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.
Using Government Information Sources (Ref. Z1223 .Z7 S4 2001)
Sears, J. L., & Moody, M. K. Using government information sources: Electronic and print (3rd edition). (2001). Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

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