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Thinking Like a Government Documents Librarian

Chuck Malone

To some, the title of this article may sound a bit too scary. Mention government documents and some librarians can only think of confusing SuDocs numbers, endless bureaucratic agencies, plain-cover publications and hard-to-use microfiche. However, many aspects of the dissemination of government information have changed with the advent of the Internet. Thus, non-document librarians are increasingly being called upon to help patrons and students find government material. In a sense, we all can now be government documents librarians—we all have access to the same wealth of government material available on the Internet.

Finding material from the government on the Internet, however, can be a frustrating experience if one just jumps onto the Internet without some help. The purpose of this article is to share some of the experiences I have had in searching for government information. Hopefully, my experiences can provide some pointers to non-document librarians to assist them in finding government information on the Internet as well as from other sources, such as online catalogs, that many of us use.

Pointer #1. Ask yourself, "Which agency of government would deal with a question or problem such as this?"

Many of us like to use Internet search engines that use keyword searching when searching the Internet. However, for government information librarians that is not necessarily the first plan of search.

For example, a patron recently phoned the documents reference desk to say that she wanted to find information on the Internet about filing a sexual harassment complaint against her employer. The patron stated that she searched the words "sexual harassment" on the altavista search engine [] and came up with 5,066 hits. After looking through several dozen of her hits, she never did find anything about filing a complaint, but she did find dozens of sites from various organizations and individuals that discussed sexual harassment.

In contrast, many government information librarians would take a different approach to searching for information on filing a sexual harassment complaint. They will ask themselves, "Which agency of government would deal with a question such as this?"

In dealing with governmental information, a useful approach to searching for information is to become familiar with the various government agencies and have some idea of the types of activities they are involved in, and then search that agency. It is no coincidence that the SuDocs system of classifying government information relies on organization by government agency. Document librarians have found that organizing and searching by agency is a valuable tool in dealing with governmental material—and this same agency-based approach carries over onto the Internet also.

A veteran government documents librarian would know from experience that at the federal level the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [] would be the agency that would deal with federal civil rights laws against sexual harassment. In Illinois, the Illinois Department of Human Rights [] enforces the State of Illinois laws against sexual harassment. Both of these agencies' home pages lead one easily to information about sexual harassment, including how to file a complaint. Also, if when going to an agency's home page the information you are looking for does not jump out at you, use the "Search" feature of their home page if available. That way you can type in

* Chuck Malone, Government Information Librarian, Western Illinois University Library, Macomb. Prior to his appointment at W.I.U. in July 1998, he worked as a librarian in the Government Documents Department at Poplar Creek Public Library District, Streamwood, Illinois.


search words such as "sexual harassment," and search only Internet information from that particular agency's home page.

How can the non-documents librarian know which agency deals with a particular problem or subject? There are several good sources of information that most libraries will have access to that describe the activities of various government agencies. The United States Government Manual is an excellent print source for describing the activities of federal agencies. It is published with an updated version bi-annually and is available for purchase from a Government Printing Office (GPO) Bookstore. It also is available for viewing on the Internet as part of GPO Access, which will be discussed later in this article.

There also are some good Internet sites that list and lead one to federal government agencies. These include the Government Printing Office's Federal Agency Internet Sites []. Villanova University's The Federal Web Locator [] is another good site. I also often use the "Federal Agencies" link at Western Illinois University's Government Publications Unit's home page [] for accessing federal government agencies.

For Illinois government agencies the Illinois Blue Book is a print source that describes the roles of Illinois agencies. One can also go to the Illinois Home Page on the Internet [] and choose "State Agencies—Alphabetical Listing" to scan the list of various Illinois government agencies. At the same address, one can choose from broad subject listings and find a list of Illinois agencies that deal with that subject. Either way, one can click on the agency's name and link to that agency's home page to find out what activities they are involved in. Spending a little time browsing these sources to learn more about the activities of government agencies can pay big dividends in searching the Internet for government information.

Pointer #2. Know the source of your information.

Don't be duped by unofficial sources of information. Unfortunately, there is no fool-proof way to know how "official" a site is or how "legitimate" an official looking Internet site's information is. Federal government agencies do, however, have a domain name of ".gov" in their Internet address. However, many universities have added their own interface or developed their own search engines to enhance certain types of government information, and such sites will have an ".edu" domain. Also, many official state sites have a domain name of "state._" with the two spaces being a two-letter abbreviation for that state.

Follow-up research with print sources and phone calls to the appropriate government agency are always in order when in doubt about the authenticity of information found on the Internet. At the government documents reference desk, I recently had a patron come in with a citation to a treaty document that had President Clinton signing an environmental treaty that would place the environment above God, family and just about everything else. The patron even had several pages of text that were supposedly taken from an "official" Internet copy of the document. There actually does exist an environmental treaty under the citation the patron had presented. However, someone had used some creative word processing to change the text of the treaty to post on a particular organization's Web site to serve their political agenda. Fortunately, the patron who brought in the altered copy of the treaty wanted to verify the content.

Pointer #3. Look to government sources when trying to find statistics.

The federal government is the largest gatherer of statistics. Again, having some knowledge of the activities of the various government agencies will help one find statistics on the Internet. For example, for statistics that deal with labor, the Department of Labor's home page is a good place to start such a search [http://]. On the Department of Labor's home page, the choice of "Statistics & Data" is given as a link. Clicking on this link leads one to a choice of statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Mining Safety and Health Administration, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A link is even given to "Fedstats: the one stop reference guide to federal statistics Web sites." Fedstats [] provides access to more than 70 federal agencies that produce statistics. Agriculture, crime, demographics and foreign trade are just a few areas for which the federal government issues statistics. The University of Michigan Documents Center also has put together some excellent links to economic government statistics called "Statistical Resources on the Web— Comprehensive Economics" [].

We are all familiar with the Statistical Abstract of the United States. [Also available on the Internet at

200] Whenever I find useful statistics in the Statistical Abstract, I always check the citation at the bottom of the table to identify the source. One can find useful sources of titles and agencies to do follow-up research if necessary.

Pointer #4. Have an understanding of how laws are made and know the Internet sources of researching legislation.

Frequently, patrons and students will ask for information about a Congressional bill they had read about—or a recently passed law—or the existing law on a particular subject. Congressional committee hearings also can provide excellent background information for a student's paper.

One should understand that each Congress proposes thousands of bills, but often only 200-300 usually make it into law. These individual laws (sometimes called session laws) are individually published as public laws by number, such as Public Law 103-3. (The 103 designates the 103rd Congress; the 3 denotes that it is the 3rd law passed by the 103rd Congress). Individual public laws are published in print as individual slip versions and collectively in the Statutes at Large. They may also show up on Internet sites as "Public Laws." A compilation of public laws is put together by subject to give us the current U.S. law. This compilation is called the U.S. Code. Since many of the session laws are frequently amendments of an original law, one must use the U.S. Code to find the current law.

Some good Internet sources for legislative research at the federal level are:


Sponsored by the Library of Congress, this site offers a summary and status of Congressional bills from 1973 to present; full-text of bills from 1989 to present; Public Laws by number, 1973 to present;

Congressional Record—schedules of Congressional activities; selected Congressional committee hearing transcripts; guides, such as "How Our Laws Are Made" and "Enactment of a Law"; and historical documents, such as The Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers and the U.S. Constitution.

United States Congress

Sponsored by the U.S. Government Printing Office, United States Congress has much of the same coverage as THOMAS.

GPO Access:

Also sponsored by the U.S. Government Printing Office, GPO Access includes such items as Budget of the United States; Code of Federal Regulations; Commerce Business Daily; Congressional Calendars; Federal Register; GOA Bluebook Reports; United States Government Manual; History of Bills and Resolutions; Congressional Record; Economic Report of the President; Supreme Court Decisions (1937-1975); United States Code; Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, and more. All these documents are searchable. Many universities have developed their own "gateways" that improve the interface for searching GPO Access. My favorite is Northwestern University's "GPO Access on the Web" []. Other gateways to GPO Access are available at "Federal Depository Library Gateways" [].

U.S. House of Representatives Internet Law Library:

The U.S. Code—Code of Federal Regulations links to state laws, links to international laws—and much more.

United States Code:
http :// 80/uscode

Although the United States Code is available at several Internet locations, the searching interface of this Comell University site is one of the easiest to use.

Unfortunately, we have not had an Illinois source on the Internet for Illinois legislation and Public Acts (what Illinois session laws are called). Nor has there been an Internet source for the compilation of Illinois laws called the Illinois Compiled Statutes. This should change soon with the Illinois General Assembly's June 2, 1998, signing of Senate Bill 1674, which would require that specified Illinois legislative information be made available on the Web. The Governor is expected to sign this legislation.

Pointer #5. Understand the relationship between laws and regulations.

Often, a patron will come to the government documents reference desk and ask for something such as the law from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (Public Law 103-3) concerning time off for a pregnancy. She may state that her boss is requiring that the two


weeks vacation time she has coming must count as two of the 12 weeks leave she can take under FMLA. One's first inclination is to take the patron to the U.S. Code [, select "the Popular Names Tables, then select "Part II," which would have the alphabetical listing of "Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993," which you would then select] to find the current federal law and assume that this will answer the patron's question. At 29 USC 2601 (That is Title 29 of the U.S. Code, Section 2601) one will find about 24 pages of text giving the exact wording of this law. However, the source that will more often answer detailed and specific questions concerning a law is the Code of Federal Regulations. [, select Code of Federal Regulations, and type in "Family and Medical Leave" for the search].

Almost every federal law passed authorizes a particular federal agency to write regulations to administer the law. In the case of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Department of Labor was authorized to write the regulations that administer this law. These are contained in 29 CFR 825 (Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 825). The regulations for FMLA run about 95 pages and cover many of the specific details a patron may be looking for, such as whether an employer can include one's vacation time as part of the 12 weeks of leave granted by this law.

Regulations that appear in the Code of Federal Regulations first appear as proposed regulations in the Federal Register [also available on GPO Access]. The Federal Register comes out five times a week and is the official government source of proposed regulations, final regulations and other federal government notices. A proposed regulation will often give background material on why the law was passed, outline the proposed regulations to administer the law, solicit public comments and give specific phone numbers of personnel within that agency who are working on the particular regulations for that law. Several months later a final regulation is published in the Federal Register. This will often include more background discussion, a summary of the public comments received, a discussion of why the regulations were written the way they were, and the text of the final regulations. The text of the final regulations will then be incorporated into the next printing of the Code of Federal Regulations, which is an annual revised codification of the rules published in the Federal Register.

An even more dramatic example of the difference in detail between the actual law in the U. S. Code and the regulations in the CFR is the Title IX law on gender equality in sports programs at educational facilities. (In this case. Title IX is not Title IX of the U.S. Code, but is Title IX of Public Law 92-318, the Education Amendments of 1972). The appropriate section of the U.S. Code, 20 USC 1681, contains only a paragraph prohibiting discrimination in educational activities. Sports are not even specifically mentioned. But if one goes to the appropriate regulations in 34 CFR 106, considerable detail is given to the types of discrimination prohibited in educational activities. And 34 CFR 106.41 has a few pages that deal specifically with regulations concerning discrimination and athletic activities.

Illinois session and administrative law operates in much the same manner. Once a session law (public act) is passed, it is then codified into the Illinois Compiled Statutes. An Illinois agency will often be authorized to write regulations to administer the law. These first appear as proposed regulations, and then as final regulations in the Illinois Register. The regulations are then compiled into the Illinois Administrative Code, which is the state equivalent of the federal Code of Federal Regulations.

A good rule of thumb for many laws is that the actual law may deal with the problem in general terms and authorize an agency to write regulations that deal with the specifics in administering the law. And a word of caution is also in order when helping patrons search legal resources. It is not the librarian's position to interpret the law for patrons. For example, when a patron comes in and asks for the laws on family leave (and does not present you with a citation), it is not our place to interpret for the patron that the Family and Medical Leave Act is the law they are looking for. It is best to show the patron how to use the resources and search the possible laws themselves.

Pointer #6. Be prepared for less than desirable citations and know how to use the searching capabilities of online catalogs, CD-ROMs and Internet search engines to their fullest extent.

We already have had the example of the confusing "Title IX" citation, which referred to a title within a public act rather than a title in the U.S. Code or the Code of Federal Regulations. Be prepared for many other ambiguous citations when dealing with governmental information. In a similar vein to Title IX, I once had a request for Public Law 504 information on students with learning disabilities. In this case, 504 turned out to be Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.


I was led to the proper citation by typing a keyword search of "Section 504" into a database of an online catalog that included the holdings of a large depository library. This led me to some pamphlets and guides on the subject that gave me the proper citation. The same type of keyword search could be done on a CD-ROM product of government documents such as Autographics or Silver Platter.

Another approach to search for Section 504 information would be to figure that the U.S. Department of Education would be an agency that would deal with information on students with learning disabilities. One could then go to their home page [], choose the "Search" feature, type in a search of "Section 504" and be led to usable citations. That also is the way I originally found out what "Title IX" really stood for.

Another patron once asked for the "purple book" on asbestos from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. He called the EPA, and they told him to go to his local Depository Library and ask for this book. By further questioning the patron, I found out that this was a guide of some sort. I figured (and hoped) that if the officials at EPA were referring to this book as the "purple book" that the word purple appeared somewhere in at least an alternative title. Thus, I tried title keyword searches of "purple book" in both Illinet Online and OCLC and came up with a document titled, Assessment of Asbestos Removal Carried Out Using EPA Purple Book Guidance, which was also published by the EPA. Fortunately, we had that book on the shelf. Notes in the front pages of it led me to the "purple book" itself. Guidance for Controlling Asbestos-Containing Materials in Buildings, which did have a purple or blue cover. I am partially colorblind, but notes in the front pages of this book stated that this was commonly called the "purple book." Unfortunately, no cataloger had picked up on adding "purple book" as an alternative title.

I also noticed that next to the "purple book" on the shelf were books on asbestos with covers of other colors. I made a mental note of this, which proved useful when several months later a patron came in looking for the EPA "orange book" on asbestos. I knew right where to go.

The important point here is that government publications are cataloged on Illinet Online and OCLC, and often titles can be found by searching these databases. Searches may involve keyword searches of obscure bits of information, such as "Section 504" or "BLS bulletin 1425-19." But if one becomes skillful at using databases for these types of searches, one can often find many of the documents that go with these obscure citations. Databases in which the entire MARC record can be keyword searched are especially helpful. It appears that the upcoming improvements to Illinet Online will offer some excellent keyword searching capabilities.

Additionally, most depository libraries will interlibrary loan their governmental publications. So when you find documents on Illinet Online, OCLC or First Search's WordCat, you can usually obtain them through interlibrary loan. Help is only as far away as your local depository library.

Pointer #7. Get to know your local depository librarians.

Depository librarians are more than glad to help not only students, businesses, organizations and the general public, but they also enjoy helping other librarians. Find out which libraries in your area are depository libraries and get to know the librarians who work in those departments. Many Illinois libraries are both a federal depository and a State of Illinois depository. The Illinois State Library maintains directories of both federal and Illinois depositories at:


Although I have only touched on only a small portion of the government material available on the Internet, I hope I have shown that this information is accessible. Locating government information does not have to be scary. With a little practice and thinking like a government documents librarian, we can all take advantage of this wealth of information open to us on the Internet.


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