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Historical Methods Using Government Documents

Historian's guide to government documents: what they are, how they are organized, major historical sets to be familiar with; tips for searching

What's a Government Document?

Photo of Government Printing Office, 1930s
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1930s from Picturing the Big Shop: Photos of the U.S. Government Publishing Office, 1900-1980

 

A government document is anything published by a government agency.  Instead of seeing a private publisher like Pearson, McMillian, or some other company, you will see an agency like U.S. Senate, U.S. State Department, U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Sometimes the agency will be the publisher or it will simply be listed as the author with the publisher as the U.S. Government Printing Office.

The Federal Government is the largest publisher in the United States and the largest publishing research organization.  The subjects it covers are unlimited.

 

Government agencies common to history researchers:

  • Bureau of Census (population, land use, social demographics)
  • Defense (military affairs)
  • Office of the President
  • Department of State (foreign affairs, diplomatic correspondence)
  • Smithsonian (science, anthropology)
  • Congress (public affairs, legislation, policy)

The government agency could be a federal document, something published by a state agency like the State of Texas, or even a local government group like something from the City of Abilene.  Most of  this guide will focus on federal government documents.

Why are they important?

GovDocs are a rich source of primary material.

Government documents include anything produced by the President, by Congress, or employees of the government in the course of their offical duties.  They often include letters, official correspondence (sometimes with personal opinions), maps, discussion as well as documentation of event details.  They will often be from the time period being talked about.

They may be edited for content  They can express biased viewpoints.  But even these facts can convey something of the emotional state of the nation at the time.  It is the job of the researcher to know the strengths and limitations of any source.

Govdocs reflect the many aspects of society.

They are not just laws and legislation.  Government is involved in anything that affects the nation and its people.  If a topic involves the United States or any country that the United States interacts with or has interest in, then there is probably a govdoc for it.

Govdocs are public material.

U.S. law is built around the collection, preservation, and accessiblity of government papers.  Accessibility and accountability is a core element of U.S government.  Government material is copyright free, and anyone has the right to use them.

Federal Depository Library Program

The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) was developed to ensure government papers are available to the people.  it was established in 1985 and is administered by the Government Printing Office.

Under the FDLP, certain libraries are designated as depository libraries.  These libraries receive copies of government reports for free in exchange for keeping them accessible and helping people use them.  Not every library is a depository.  The rules of depository libraries are actually condified in U.S. law.  To qualify, a library must show that has the space to house documents, that it has librarian who specialize in government information, and it adhears to free public access of the material.  ACU is one of these depositories.

Depository libraries form a network across the United States.  They share the responsiblity of making the work of government accessible.  If one library does not have a particular document, it will go through the FDLP network to find one that does.

For more information:  A Brief History of the FDLP