Government Documents

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Agencies and branches at all levels of government publish a wide variety of reports, surveys, fact sheets, and other documents relating to their operation. This guide is an introduction to the scope, use and location of these materials. Because of the relatively small size of the Goodson Law Library's print documents collection, this guide emphasizes electronic access, as well as identifying materials available at other area documents libraries.

I. U.S. Federal Documents

A. Federal Depository Library Program

The federal government publishes a vast quantity of information. Many of these publications are distributed to libraries by the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) as part of the Federal Depository Library Program. Participating libraries receive depository materials for free, in exchange for providing public access to the documents collection.

The Goodson Law Library at Duke has been a selective depository since 1978, and currently receives approximately 7% of available federal documents. The Law Library’s federal documents collection is comprised of official court reporters, statutes, legislative history materials, regulations, administrative agency rulings, annual reports for selected agencies, treaty materials, and other law-related publications.

Elsewhere on campus, the Public Documents and Maps Department in Perkins/Bostock Library has been a selective depository since 1890, receiving more than 80% of available materials. In addition, the Walter Davis Library at UNC-Chapel Hill is a regional depository, which receives all of the documents distributed through the federal program.

B. Understanding Government Documents Call Numbers

Federal government documents are arranged by the Superintendent of Documents ("SuDoc") Classification System, which differs significantly from the Library of Congress call number system used for the majority of the Law Library's book collection. Federal documents are grouped by the agency or department that authored the documents, rather than by the subject of the publication.

In the SuDoc classification system, each federal agency and department is assigned a unique alphabetical identifier. Subordinate offices within that department are then identified by numbers. For example, "J" is the alphabetical identifier for the Justice Department; a document whose SuDoc number begins with "J 29" was published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The remainder of a government documents call number contains information which will be necessary in order to locate the item on a library shelf; see Superintendent of Documents Classification System for a thorough explanation.

C. Locating Federal Government Documents

Many federal government documents have changed in recent years to an online-only publication format, and are easily accessible through a simple Internet search. However, documents published before the mid-1990s may be more difficult to locate, even in print, because the quality of indexes has historically been poor. Contact the Law Library Reference Desk if you are unable to locate a federal government document through the methods described below.

Duke University Libraries Catalog


Nearly all of the federal government documents in the Law Library’s collection are included in the Duke University Libraries' online catalog, and can be located by searching for the title, author, keyword, and/or subject. Printed documents which are also available in full text online will be noted in the item’s catalog record with a link labeled "Online Version".

Much of the collection at Perkins/Bostock's Public Documents and Maps Department is also reflected in the online catalog, at least for documents published after 1991. Pre-1991 documents may still be available, but you will need to consult the Public Documents and Maps shelf list on Level 2 of the Perkins Library to obtain them.

Monthly Catalog and Prior Indexes


The most comprehensive source for information about federal government documents is the official Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications (Perkins Public Documents/Maps Index Area GP 3.8: and Law Library Documents GP 3.8:; moved to online-only format in 2004), which began indexing federal documents in 1895. The title of the Monthly Catalog has varied slightly over the years. You may see references to Catalogue of Publications Issued by the Government of the United States (1895); Catalogue of the United States Public Documents (1895-1907); Monthly Catalog, United States Public Documents (1907-1939); or the United States Government Publications Monthly Catalog (1940-1950). All of these titles refer to the same publication.

The Monthly Catalog is now available electronically from 1976-present through the Government Printing Office's Catalog of Government Publications.

For researching a time period which predates the Monthly Catalog, the most useful general document indexes are:

 

1885-1894

John H. Hickcox, United States Government Publications: A Monthly Catalogue (Perkins Public Documents/Maps Index Area 015.73 U58 1978)

Available through Internet Archive.

 

1881-1893

John Ames, Comprehensive Index to the Publications of the United States Government, 1881-1893 (Law Library Ref Doc. I 15.2:In 2/2 and Perkins/Bostock Reference I 15.2:In 2/2).

Duke University community may search and browse this title electronically in the United States Congressional Serial Set Digital Collection with a "Publication Search" for 58-2 House Document 754.

 

1774-1881

Benjamin Perley Poore, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Government Publications of the United States, September 5, 1774-March 4, 1881 (Law Library Ref Doc. 48-2 S. Misc. Doc. 67 and Perkins/Bostock Reference Z1223 .P667 1885c).

Searchable electronically for the Duke University community in United States Congressional Serial Set Digital Collection with a "Publication Search" for 48-2 Senate Miscellaneous Document 67.
Finding Full-Text Documents Online

Federal documents which are listed in the University Libraries' catalog may provide a link to the electronic version, where one is available. The online version of the Monthly Catalog also provides links to electronic versions.

Many recent government documents are linked from the web sites of the agency or departments which publish them. The Federal Agencies Directory from Louisiana State University provides links to the home pages of agencies, departments and offices from each branch of the federal government. Since a link to “Publications” is often not prominently displayed on these home pages, Washburn School of Law’s Federal Agency Index also provides a direct link to publications on each site.

There are several specialized government search engines which can be useful for quickly locating a document online. USA.gov, the official portal of the federal government, contains a good search engine. Google's "site:[.extension]" command will return search results from only ".gov" (government) or ".mil" (military) domain names. However, most general popular search engines (such as Yahoo or Bing) will also successfully retrieve a government document with a search for the document title in quotation marks. In addition, general search engines will retrieve documents which are archived at non-governmental sites, such as university libraries and private organizations.

For online access to federal publications from the legislative and executive branches, see the Goodson Law Library Research Guides to Federal Legislative History and Federal Administrative Law.

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II. State Documents

State governments also publish a substantial amount of documents. The Law Library receives a large number of primary state documents for all 50 states, including official court reporters, statutes, session laws, administrative codes, and Attorney General opinions. Much of this primary legal material is available online to the Duke Law community through LexisNexis and Westlaw; HeinOnline, available to the Duke University community, also includes libraries of State Session Laws and State Attorney General Reports and Opinions. Individual states may also make these resources available through their official web sites. Consult Cornell’s State Legal Links for direct links to primary legal materials for all 50 states.

States also publish government documents on non-legal topics of interest, including reports, statistical surveys, and handbooks. The Public Documents/Maps department in Perkins/Bostock is an official depository library for North Carolina, and also purchases limited documents from other states. The majority of these state documents are included in the online catalog.

Many states also provide their government documents in full text on their official web sites. Visit USA.gov: State and Territorial Governments for direct links to state home pages.

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III. International Documents

International governmental organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union, also publish many reports and documents. The Goodson Law Library and Perkins/Bostock Public Documents and Maps receive many of these publications, which can generally be found in a search of the online catalog.

In addition, many international organizations publish these documents on their official web sites. The Northwestern University Library has compiled a comprehensive list of links to the home pages of these organizations.

More detailed strategies for locating international documents can be found in the following Goodson Law Library Research Guides:

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rev. Jennifer L. Behrens
07/2012