A Student Asks "Is This an Official U.S. Government Document?"

Published (or Produced) by the Government

Every government level (city, state, national), branch (executive, legislative, judicial), and agency publishes documents, sometimes in print and often online. The U.S. Code defines a government publication as one that is "informational material…published as an individual document at Government expense" (44 U.S.C. 1901). "Informational matter" ranges from federal dietary guidelines (https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/) to firearm regulations (https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=70394195a3edf623eba7ce77a1bddff1&node=27: to self-driving car videos (https://science360.gov/obj/video/20cc7720-bc1b-4321-957a-f6090507a63d/navigating-old-frontiers-become-easier-self-driving-cars). They seem to be objective, factual information as, for example, the entries in the World Factbook, an online encyclopedia of countries published and continually updated by the Central Intelligence Agency (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/).

While government documents are created "at Government expense," not all are published—for example classified materials or internal agency reports may go unpublished. However, citizens may request any existing record from a federal agency for any reason under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 U.S.C. § 552). You can search Stanford University's collection of websites related to FOIA at https://archive-it.org/collections/924.

To summarize, government sources can be either published or unpublished. Therefore it's probably more accurate to define a government document as one produced at government expense.

Official (or Not)

Federal government documents are generally in the public domain. Since they are not copyrighted, they may be repeatedly republished in official and unofficial sources.

Government documents also surface in various formats. The Citizens United v. FEC decision is available as a PDF on the Supreme Court website (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-205.pdf) and as a web page at FindLaw (https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/08-205.html), a free legal website. The National Archives and Records Administration , charged with keeping important public records, provides both an image and a transcript of the 1965 Voting Rights Act at https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/voting-rights-1965/vra.html. Since different versions could be inconsistent, cite a government document at an official site when possible. For example, the Statutes at Large (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large) is the legal, permanent compilation of laws enacted by each session of Congress.

When people ask if a government source is "official," they may be actually asking about its legal standing. For example, President Trump, as head of the Executive Branch, offers his views about legislation in signing statements and posts his opinions about politics and policies in tweets. Although these are considered part of the public record, it is not clear if they are legally binding since their status is still being tested in the courts.1

Finding a Government Document

There's no single one-stop search for government documents, although you can create an advanced search in Google limited to site:gov. The big-three government portals search different sets of sources:

  • USA.gov (http://www.usa.gov/) – Access to federal as well as state, local, and tribal government information and services. If you can figure out which organization might publish the source you want, you can search any agency directly.
  • Govinfo.gov (https://www.govinfo.gov/) – Access to bills, laws, government reports, and public papers of presidents.
  • HathiTrust (https://www.hathitrust.org/) – Access to historical U.S. government reports published prior to 1923 now housed at many research library digital repositories.

Some specialized searches get you directly to subjects like:

Fugitive Documents

Sadly, an estimated 50-85% of government documents created each year are "fugitives," which means that although they've been produced by the federal government at taxpayer expense, they're not being sent to depository libraries and, therefore, are not being archived.2 These fugitives are not just ephemeral material like flyers and notices. In addition to classified and unpublished sources, a vast number of significant historical records concerning government actions are missing:

  • Born-digital Web pages—each year this is equivalent to the entire 200-year archive of the Federal Depository Library Program.
  • Press briefings, speeches, recordings of meetings, etc.
  • Publications at .org sites
  • Material funded by endowments (e.g., the Smithsonian)
  • Maps, aerial photos, and nautical and aeronautical charts

Various organizations have mounted efforts to capture selective areas of important government information that might otherwise be altered or removed:

  • Library of Congress: .gov domain; House, Senate, elections
  • Government Publishing Office: Executive agencies
  • National Archives and Records Administration: Congressional harvest every two years
  • Internet Archive: all sorts of curated crawls (e.g., Presidential end-of-term crawl) as well as global and national domains
  • Universities and Libraries: topical and targeted archiving at the University of North Texas, Stanford University, George Washington University, and the California Digital Library

Government Documents Have a Point of View

While they appear to be neutral, government sources always reflect the current administration's priorities. For example, the Trump administration has revised or retired much of the government information on global warming and climate change. These materials are still findable because they appear in Google searches and Data Refuge (http://www.ppehlab.org/datarefuge), an archive of federal climate and environmental data created by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

To determine the point of view of a document, look for partisan terms.

Nonpartisan terminology Terms that reflect a point of view about the same topic
Act, law, statute Limited government, individual responsibility
Gun, firearm Violence prevention, assault weapon
Immunization, vaccination Vaccine hesitancy, vaccine exemption, vaccine choice
Citizen, undocumented alien Illegal alien

Archives Also Have a Point of View

Archives are "spaces of power."3 The selection process—what is included or excluded—inevitably distorts and silences some stories. As political partisanship increases and public trust in the U.S. government remains near historic lows4 including among teens,5 concerns about digital preservation are growing. Libraries, government agencies, nonprofits, researchers, and journalists have joined forces in organizations like Free Government Information (https://freegovinfo.info/) to identify, locate, and preserve government information.

Slow Down to Contribute

Government information touches all areas of our lives. When assigned a historical project, you can contribute by transcribing or tagging a source to make it more findable in the future. Look for a National Archives Citizen Archivist "mission" (https://www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist/missions) that relates to your research—or one that appeals to you (e.g., the Pentagon Papers, Environmental Protection Agency photographs, or UFO sightings). .

Since an astounding amount of born-digital government information is at risk of becoming "fugitive" or changing without notice, you can provide a valuable service to the country. When you find government information that is critical to your own research project, take a minute to enter the URL into the "Save Page Now" field of the Wayback Machine (http://archive.org/web/). By archiving the Web page at that moment, you're helping future researchers. Good citizens are not only patriotic, they are engaged in supporting their country. You may not be able to vote yet, but you can contribute to the public good!


1 Katherine Smith, "Beyond the Bully Pulpit: Presidential Speech in the Courts (in press)," Texas Law Review, Cardozo Legal Studies Research Paper 520 ser., 96 (2017): https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2981475; Dahlia Lithwick, "Trump's Tweets Must Now Be Taken Seriously," Slate, June 12, 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2017/06/the_9th_circuit_just_decreed_that_trump_s_twitter_feed_must_be_taken_seriously.html; John Herrman and Charlie Savage, "Trump's Blocking of Twitter Users Is Unconstitutional, Judge Says," New York Times, May 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/23/business/media/trump-twitter-block.html.

2 James Robertson Jacobs, "'Issued for Gratuitous Distribution': The History of Fugitive Documents and the FDLP," Against the Grain 29, no. 6 (December/January 2018): 12-14, https://purl.stanford.edu/yc376vd9668.

3 Rodney G.S. Carter, "Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence," Archivaria 61 (Spring 2006): https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12541/13688.

4 Pew Research Center, May 3, 2017 Public Trust in Government Remains near Historic Lows as Partisan Attitudes Shift, May 13, 2017, http://www.people-press.org/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-remains-near-historic-lows-as-partisan-attitudes-shift/.

5 Jean M. Twenge, IGen: Why Today's Super-connected Kids Are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy-- and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What This Means for the Rest of Us) (New York, NY: Atria Books, 2017), 280.

Bibliography (Chicago format)

Carter, Rodney G.S. "Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence." Archivaria 61 (Spring 2006). https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12541/13688.

Herrman, John, and Charlie Savage. "Trump's Blocking of Twitter Users Is Unconstitutional, Judge Says." New York Times, May 23, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/23/business/media/trump-twitter-block.html.

Jacobs, James Robertson. "'Issued for Gratuitous Distribution': The History of Fugitive Documents and the FDLP." Against the Grain 29, no. 6 (December/January 2018): 12-16. https://purl.stanford.edu/yc376vd9668.

Lithwick, Dahlia. "Trump's Tweets Must Now Be Taken Seriously." Slate, June 12, 2017. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2017/06/the_9th_circuit_just_decreed_that_trump_s_twitter_feed_must_be_taken_seriously.html.

Mounk, Yascha. The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to save It. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Pew Research Center. May 3, 2017 Public Trust in Government Remains near Historic Lows as Partisan Attitudes Shift. May 13, 2017. http://www.people-press.org/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-remains-near-historic-lows-as-partisan-attitudes-shift.

Smith, Katherine. "Beyond the Bully Pulpit: Presidential Speech in the Courts." Texas Law Review, Cardozo Legal Studies Research Paper 520 ser., 96 (2017): 1-67. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2981475.

Twenge, Jean M. IGen: Why Today's Super-connected Kids Are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy-- and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What This Means for the Rest of Us). New York, NY: Atria Books, 2017.

Citing a Government Source

Knowing that a source is a PDF doesn't help you cite it. (See my previous column, "How Do I Cite a PDF?" ).

You'll need to identify the type of source you have, not the format. Ask your librarian to help you identify and cite tricky government sources like a law, census data, testimony at a hearing, or a court opinion.

About the Author

Debbie Abilock, MLS, cofounded and directs the educational vision of NoodleTools, Inc., a full-service teaching platform for academic research. Her column is based on over 55,000 research questions from educators and students that have been answered by NoodleTools' experts. As a former school administrator, curriculum coordinator, and school librarian, Debbie works with district leadership teams and professional organizations on curriculum and instruction. She was founding editor-in-chief of Knowledge Quest (1997-2010), writes for education publications, and has co-authored Growing Schools (Libraries Unlimited) about innovative site-based leadership and professional development led by school librarians.

MLA Citation Abilock, Debbie. " A Student Asks 'Is This an Official U.S. Government Document?'." School Library Connection, July 2018, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2152613.

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