Using Government Documents for Research

Many of us think of the government as a law-passing, politicking body, but did you know that the US government does a large amount of research and publication on many major issues and topics and that most government documents are free and available for your use?

In order to write the many policies that govern our country, federal agencies must do a large amount of research. For instance, if the Environmental Protection Agency is attempting to change the regulations regarding air quality in Michigan, they have to actually have data spanning a number of years in order to write a regulation.

All of the information that agencies publish is available to the public online. The Government Printing Office‘s Federal Digital System, or FDSys, provides access to documents from all three branches of government online completely free of charge. The United States Code, the Federal Registercongressional hearings, the Code of Federal Regulations, and congressional bills are all available online.

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GPO’s website is the gateway to government publications.

Although many regulations are often only read by lawyers and bureaucrats, doing a quick search on FDSys can turn up reports that you may not have known about previously since government documents are not usually published in journals.  Another way to search for government publications is to include the phrase “” in your Google search.

Government publications not only include regulations and congressional documents, but also extensive reports in all fields of research. For instance, last year, the U.S. Army Center for Military History published Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, which considers the lives of black troops during the Civil War. In addition, The U.S. National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill & Offshore Drilling published “Macondo: The Gulf Oil Disaster: Chief Counsel’s Report” last year, giving an overview of the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

If you’re interested in history, including archival documents, the census, and photo collections, check out the National Archives and the Library of Congress. These agencies have some of the largest and most extensive collections in the world. For example, if you’re interested in Abraham Lincoln’s correspondence, all of his letters are online and accessible. No trip to D.C. necessary!

For more notable government documents of the past year, check out Marianne Ryan’s article in The Library Journal.  

–Madalyn Muncy, Library Student Blogger

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