Government Documents 101
09 May 2018 by Paratext Editorial

United States Masterfile | American Studies


Part I: What, Who, and Why

The average researcher likely doesn’t think often about government documents. Unless your specialty is political science, law, or government history, government documents don’t seem like an obvious resource to utilize. What is a specialist in literature, psychology, or biology going to find of value in government documents?

The answer may surprise you. Because the work and research of government encompasses so many aspects of human society and culture, there’s something for everyone within the wealth of information included in government documents.

With government documents often underutilized in research, we thought we’d offer a primer for researchers to better understand what they are, who creates them and why, and how to begin using them.


What is a Government Document?

A government document is any piece of information produced by a government entity, or at government expense. The term doesn’t have to refer to paper documents, but includes any sort of media: online publications, microforms, CDs or DVDs; along with the many print forms produced such as brochures, magazines and books.

When you think about all the work the government undertakes and helps fund, you can start to see how wide of a reach government documents encompass. The kind of policy information you’d expect is all there, but alongside it you can discover scientific research, public health information, energy initiatives, and—even more surprising—documents addressing subject areas as disparate as gender studies, advertising, and science fiction.


Who Creates Government Documents?

“Government” is actually a pretty broad term and government documents are produced by a wide array of offices, organizations, individuals and departments.

International government documents are produced by the governments of most countries, as well as intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations, World Bank and European Union. In the United States, documents are produced at the federal, state, and local levels. There are documents relating to each of the branches of government, from the early days of the U.S. government’s development up to the present.


Why are Government Documents Created?

These documents are produced for a number of reasons. Sometimes they help to track the work of a department and keep a record of activities performed to meet its goals and objectives. Other times they are meant to serve as an informational resource for the public. They can also be used to explain the results of research projects funded by the government, describe the details of military missions (although these are often classified for a certain period of time), or even serve as propaganda or marketing to make a case for government actions.

As in any business or organization, there’s a constant need to track activities and produce informational pieces. Systems are in place to ensure that these resources are maintained and made available to the public in order to both let citizens benefit from work produced by their taxes, and help future historians better understand the workings of the government over time.


Part II: Why and How

Why Use Government Documents?

The answer to this question can be as varied as the possible types and topics of research. As discussed in Part I, government documents cover a huge range of topics and span an extensive time period so you can track changes and trends for many subject areas just by finding the right government document.

Since its earliest days, the United States government has offered primary sources tracking the details and progress of what transpires within the government itself, as well as within the many organizations and committees connected to the government. That leaves us a research goldmine of information on the country's history and culture.


How to Search for Government Documents?

If government documents are so valuable and packed full of the information researchers need, why aren’t more scholars using them? One of the reasons has to do with the sheer quantity of documents that have been produced over the years and the problem of finding relevant documents that this quantity engenders.

With the many departments, organizations, committees, and governmental agencies all producing documents from the local levels up to the federal, determining how to pinpoint the documents of value to a particular research project can pose a serious challenge. Especially since the categorizing scheme used to order government documents differs greatly from those of other types of resources.

The main points you need to know to successfully search for government documents are:

1. What is a SuDoc number?

If you don’t happen to have a government document librarian nearby, here are the main points regarding the nature and use of the Superintendent of Documents (SuDocs) classification scheme:

  • SuDocs—the main classification system for government documents—refers to which department created the document, rather than the subject covered.
  • The letter at the beginning of a SuDoc number refers to the agency - A for the Department of Agriculture, and D for Defense, for example.
  • The number following it refers to the department, using the chronology of when the department was developed—so C3 means the Census Bureau, which was the third to be established within the Commerce Department.
  • The numbers following refer to the type of document and help to differentiate specific documents.


2. Where do I look for government documents?

You can search the Government Printing Office (GPO) catalog via their website, or search across a range of document types with U.S. Documents Masterfile if your library has access.


3. Where do I access government documents?

Both of the above resources can help you to directly access any documents that have been digitized online. The number of documents this applies to is likely to grow considerably in the coming years as more organizations, archives and businesses work to digitize resources of value.

To access those documents that are still only available in print, seek out the closest Federal Depository Library. Most states have at least one such depository library. These depositories are supported by the GPO and retain copies of all government documents received.

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