Government Documents 101
25 March 2020 by Paratext Editorial
United States Masterfile | Political History
Editor’s note: in light of the recent influx of new U.S. Documents Masterfile users, we know the question of “why government documents?” may arise for many researchers. This post, a version of which first appeared on our blog in 2018, answers that question and more. It has been updated to reflect the current realities of the government documents world.
Part I. What, Who and Why?
Unless your field is political science, law, or government history, you may not have thought much about government documents. After all, what would the average specialist in literature, psychology, or biology do with government documents?
The answer, as it turns out, is “quite a lot!” Because the work and research of the 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 this class of 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?
Simply put: a government document is any piece of information produced by a government entity or at government expense.
The term doesn’t refer solely to paper or PDF reports. It encompasses any sort of media: online publications, publications on microform, CDs, DVDs, along with the many popular print forms like brochures, magazines and books.
When you think about all the work the government is involved in and helps fund, you can start to see how wide of a reach the term has. The kind of information you’d expect is all there—bills, laws, congressional documents—but alongside it you can discover scientific research, public health information, and energy initiatives. These documents cover subject areas as disparate and unexpected as gender studies, advertising, and science fiction.
Who creates government documents?
In this context, “government” is a pretty broad term and government documents are produced by a wide array of offices, organizations, individuals, and departments. Furthermore, on top of the national government documents are produced by most countries, intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations, World Bank and European Union produce their own sets of documents, too.
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 country’s development up to the present.
U.S. Documents Masterfile encompasses documents produced by the United States federal government—a massive corpus in its own right.
Why are government documents created?
These documents are produced for a number of reasons. Sometimes they help 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.
Indexing and distribution 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.
Why Use Government Documents?
The reasons for using government documents can be as varied as the possible types and topics of research. They cover a huge range of topics and span an extensive time period, so you can track changes and trends for many subject areas using them as a primary or secondary resource.
Since its earliest days, the United States federal government has offered up primary sources that track the details and progress of what transpires within the government itself, as well as government-funded organizations and committees. These primary sources provide a research gold mine of information on the country's history and culture.
For example, government document sources hold the answers to the following research questions…
- What attempts were made to save the original holdings of the Library of Congress when the British were marching on Washington in 1814?
- How could the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century have influenced current-day arts education?
- How did science fiction authors to attempt to understand recreational drug use in the 1960s and 1970s?
- What were the recommended building practices for fireplaces and flues on farms of the early twentieth century?
Part II. How to Search for Government Documents
If government documents are so potentially valuable to research, 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.
With the many departments, organizations, committees, and governmental agencies all producing documents, determining how to pinpoint the documents of value to a particular research project can pose a serious challenge. Adding to the challenge, the methods used to categorize government documents differ greatly from other types of resources.
The following main points will start you off on the path of successfully searching for government documents. These pertain to searching for United States federal government documents.
1. What is a SuDoc (or SuDocs) number?
The Superintendent of Documents (abbreviated SuDoc or SuDocs) classification system is the main system by which U.S. federal government documents are indexed. A document’s SuDoc number refers to the department that created the document. It is not based on the document’s subject.
A sample SuDoc number looks like this: C 3.6/2:R 31. (This example number refers to a 2020 online document from the Census Bureau titled “Your guide to the 2020 Census.”)
- The letter at the beginning refers to the agency. (A for the Department of Agriculture, and D for Defense, etc.) In this example, the letter is “C” for “Commerce Department.”
- The number following it refers to the department, using the chronology of when the department was developed – in this case, “C 3” means the “Census Bureau,” which was the third department to be established within the Commerce Department.
- The fractional number after the period refers to the main series and attached series. In this case, the main series is “6” (regulations, rules, and instructions) and the attached series is “2” (general publications).
- Letters and/or numbers after the colon comprises the document’s book number, which gives information about its publication. In this case, the “R 31” is a designation called a Cutter number, which is assigned to publications by the Library of Congress. Cutter numbers are sometimes followed by a three or four digit publication year (e.g., “R 11/988” or “T 48/2019”). Alternatively, a report number and/or year may serve as the book number (e.g., “Y 1.1/5:73-1455”)
- Sometimes a slash followed by a revision number may appear after the book number. However this practice has fallen out of favor in recent years.
2. Where do I look for federal government documents?
You can search a wide variety of historical and contemporary sources of U.S. federal documents with U.S. Documents Masterfile. More information on the specific sources available to search can be found on our Content Page. Where available, links to full text are given in search results.
3. Where do I access federal government documents?
Both of the above resources can help you to directly access any documents that have been digitized online. The number of documents available scanned online is likely to continue growing considerably in the coming years as more organizations, archives, and businesses work to digitize resources of value. U.S. Documents Masterfile includes 10 million full text links.
For resource that are still only available in print, you can use the bibliographic information obtained via U.S. Documents Masterfile and other search sources to find hard copies at the closest federal depository library.