Defining Government Documents | Depository Programs | Formats and Frequency | Acquisitions | Cataloging & Classifying | Further Information | Self-Assessment #8
Defining Government Documents
Government documents are simply those pieces of communication published or produced by a government at any level. One usually distinguishes between interoffice communications (memos, letters, notices, forms & flyers) and those that were intended for distribution beyond the immediate working unit producing them. Some libraries also try to distinguish between those things that are very transitory and those that are worth keeping. It is often difficult to decide which is which and some libraries even put a minimum page size on documents that qualify for retention. This is very arbitrary and not really useful. A brochure announcing a seminar to be presented by the Small Business Administration might be a useful “document” for the library to post but not a useful “document” for the library to retain as it has no relevance beyond the date of the seminar except as part of the records of that office. Organizations have a responsibility to deal with their own organizational history and records retention. Documents in this case means “packages” of information intended for distribution or at least to be accessed by those outside of the immediate office, agency or body. There was a time when documents were primarily published monographs or serials. Those we all recognize as documents. Then governments started issuing things like posters, CDs, DVDs, and digital files. These are all called documents even though they do not fit the definition of “published” or “document” in the traditional sense. No wonder people are confused about this issue. For our purposes, let us say that “government documents are those items with information content that are useful for citizens” and especially for citizens in a democracy. Thus city council minutes, ordinances, the U.S. Statistical Abstract, census data, and a whole host of other things can be considered documents that fit this definition regardless of whether or not they were actually published, made available in digital format, microfilm or are just photocopied pages.
Governments at all levels produce documents. A library may have its own board minutes and its annual report to the community that qualify not just as business records but as documents. The city and/or county, the school district, the water conservation district, etc., may all have documents of importance for citizens. Of course the state and the Land Grant University (so called because they were given land grants by the federal government to help fund their enterprises, especially their county extension program to bring the knowledge and research of the university to the rural communities of the state) produce many documents each year. A large proportion of the documents/publications produced by the state’s extension services are very useful in public libraries. The United States Federal Government is the largest publisher in the world and their imprint (GPO – Government Printing Office) can be seen on many publications that libraries have used for years. The United Nations and all other governments in the world produce documents that are integrated into appropriate library collections.
The level of service and document resources that a library might supply its patrons ranges from being a full depository for state, federal and even Canadian, Mexican, and United Nations publications to entirely ignoring the rich information resources of documents at all levels. One step up from the bottom of this service continuum would be to at least provide a listing of depository libraries in the region where someone might go to seek assistance. Local libraries might link to a few major federal document websites and perhaps one for state documents and/or the library might decide to provide links directly from its catalog to the individual documents themselves. Local libraries might choose to provide a small selection of state and federal documents either in print or on the Web. This selection could consist of a few core items that are standard reference tools and documents that address local issues or situations. In addition, the local library can either provide the documents of local government within the library or on the library’s website or the library can link to those documents located on the appropriate governmental website. There are many options but a library interested in serving the needs of its citizens should seriously consider providing some access to documents of current interest and importance.
One of the useful websites for U.S. federal documents is GPO Access. It provides a gateway to the publications and other information about the government. Also of value is the central site for access to your state’s publications. For Arizona, the Arizona State Agency Records and Publications website, hosted by the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records agency provide access to both current and historical information about Arizona state government and state documents.
The rules governing state and federal depository libraries have inadvertently contributed to the confusion about the role of documents in smaller libraries. The depository programs were established to make certain that the documents produced by governments at the state and federal level were distributed to libraries so that all citizens might have reasonable access to this information without having to travel to the state capitol or Washington, D.C. The idea was great but as the bureaucracy of government continued to grow so did the rules and regulations regarding the depository programs, especially the federal program. Rules were established regarding how materials had to be handled in the local library as well as how one determined what, if anything, one could weed. Libraries considered partial depository libraries could select that they wanted to receive to some extent but full depositories have to take and keep, sometimes for only five years, but usually forever, all documents sent to them.
As the government grew and grew, the Government Printing Office needed a good way to track and classify the thousands of pages produced each day by the government. Thus was born the Superintendent of Documents’ classification scheme—SuDocs. Unlike Dewey or the Library of Congress classification systems, SuDocs is based on the agency or office that produced the item (its provenance) rather than the subject of the item. Thus much of what the government produces about education can be found in the classification area for the Department of Defense rather than the Department of Education because the army, navy, air force, and all of their subdivisions are engaged in training and education for large numbers of individuals and many documents, handbooks, study guides, etc., are produced by them. This becomes more and more confused as agencies and whole departments change names, come and go, and morph into something else. Government document librarians know the historical context for these changes and can help clients find the right things by knowing enough about the history of the structure of the federal government to be able to zero in on the right information in the right place. Other types of collections, including archives and other official records collections, are also usually organized by provenance rather than by topic.
Librarians responsible for state documents understand the sometimes bazaar relationships between state governmental agencies and departments. Usually large federal depository libraries arrange their collections in SuDoc order thus providing another layer of mystery to an already confusing area of librarianship. Many states, such as Arizona and Nebraska, have developed their own similarly constructed system for classifying state documents based on provenance. But the good news is that in our own local libraries we can use whatever classification system we already use. We just have to find the right Dewey class within which to place the document. All other cataloging is pretty much like anything else only with federal documents the publisher is almost always GPO and the place of publication or production is usually Washington, D.C. With documents there is almost always what is called a “corporate author” if there is any author at all. The corporate author for the minutes of the county commission meeting is not the person who took the notes or did the transcription and typing but rather the name of the Commission—Happy Days County Commission or some version of that name.
Formats & Frequency
Government documents come in many formats today just as other information comes in many types of packages. Smaller libraries now can provide easy access to a selection of important documents because much of the most sought after current information being produced by all levels of government is made available on the Web. State libraries and university libraries catalog many of the documents produced at state government levels and the Library of Congress catalogs a large percentage of the current federal documents. With the easy availability of bibliographic records for electronic documents, libraries with electronic catalogs can now download bibliographic records that contain the URL for electronic versions of documents of local interest. If the catalog is Web accessible, then it a simple matter of attaching an item record and local citizens can use the local library’s catalog to link directly to documents on the Web. In addition to this relatively easy means of providing access to federal and state documents of interest, local libraries may digitize their own documents and post them on the Web. The local library might also direct users to a central state website where state documents may be accessed or the library may direct users to the URL for the catalog of a large federal depository library in the region to enable users to more easily retrieve a wide range of federal documents. Some types of documents are still being published in paper and there may be a few of those that you would like to have in your collection. State libraries often provide an email listing (monthly) of new documents of interest along with ordering information for those libraries interested in obtaining a copy. These listings are worth browsing through to acquire such things as an Environmental Impact Study that pertains to local land use or a water sustainability study that concerns the regional watershed. Some agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service routinely provide local libraries with documents that concern area issues. The government documents librarians in the state can be a valuable resource for smaller libraries. Ask for their help in identifying documents that might be appropriate for your library to have or to make available via the Web.
As with other publications, government documents might be monographic (intended to be produced once like a book) or serial. A large portion of documents are serial in nature. They are produced on a regular (or somewhat regular) basis and while the content of each “issue” is different, the bibliographic control issues in terms of cataloging and processing are actually easy. So that the county commission minutes or the yearbook of the local high school, do not have to be cataloged separately each time there is a new issue. Rather, they each would receive the same type of catalog record as any other serial publication and each new “issue” would be added to the catalog record as a volume. For example, there would be one catalog record for the Happy Valley County Commission meeting minutes, and each set of minutes could be checked in the same way that each issue of Time Magazine is checked in and placed on the shelf with the previous issues. The bibliographic record would indicate an “open-holdings” statement such as: April 1937- . This means that the first issue of the minutes that the library has is that from the meeting in April 1937 and the library has acquired the minutes since then. If high school annuals or the minutes of meetings are going to circulate, a library can add a bar code to each volume/issue and put that item record in the catalog as well. In the catalog record, we would then have a listing of each high school annual as though it were a volume in a multi-volume set but the volume number would be the year of publication rather than an actual volume number. While documents are often a bit daunting at first for a small library to consider, once one is aware of how similar they are to any other type of information, the management of them becomes far easier.
The arrangements to acquire government documents will vary from place to place. Some state libraries provide alerts that give the contact information for acquiring each document or make arrangements to send local libraries state documents with local implications. In other states, local libraries have a much harder time identifying documents of concern for their citizens. Newspapers often provide clues to reports, plans and other documents that are newsworthy and of local interest. Contact information is often listed to enable the library or a citizen to acquire the document.
Public libraries have always purchased a number of key federal documents in paper for their reference collections. Titles with which you may be familiar are the Statistical Abstract of the United States which provides pages and pages of statistical data about population and sociological issues such as education and religion, economic indicators of many types, agricultural and manufacturing data as well as import and export data to name but a few of the treasures found here. It is a rich source, in one volume, of millions of bits of information. Now one can use it on the Web and/or purchase it in paper. Another favorite of public and school libraries is the Occupational Outlook Handbook. This title, published every two years, provides essays about jobs, educational and training requirements, salary ranges, and job opening projections for a wide range of occupations and industries. It has been one of the primary sources for career planning for high school students. It also is now available through the Web. A third title, discontinued in the early 1990s but often found in public libraries is the Agricultural Yearbook series. These annual volumes, with specific subject themes, are often gifted to public libraries. They need to be weeded from the collection, however, as the information becomes too old. The fact that they are government documents does not exempt them from the ordinary weeding guidelines used by a library. These are only a few of the regularly used and very helpful federal documents that are of importance to public libraries no matter how small. These well-known documents are sold through standard vendors on a limited basis.
The public library should make every effort to acquire paper copies or have electronic access to the key documents produced by local governmental entities. The library is open to all citizens and it is usually open more hours than are the offices of local government. Thus access to vital government information can be more fully provided if the library has these items. Simple catalog records can be made for these things. Many routine documents are actually serials and a single bibliographic record is all that is needed for things like the minutes or the agendas of the local school board meetings and similar types of materials. Local documents are a prime example of an area of information that even small libraries should be providing on a limited basis for citizens.
To acquire these documents the library must work one-on-one with the appropriate official or office personnel to get on the mailing list for the types of materials they wish to receive. Sometimes local government officials are defensive when approached by the library for these items. They will want to know why you want to have this information. Remaining calm and being professional while emphasizing the need for citizens to have reasonable access to government information in the interests of good government while also emphasizing the library’s role in helping local government by providing access during hours when they and their personnel are unavailable usually helps them to see the value in such cooperation. These materials are all public records and you are entitled to provide them for the citizens in a manner and at times that are convenient for them. If at first you do not succeed, try, try again.
Cataloging & Classifying
As previously mentioned, any government document can be cataloged the same way that you catalog any monographic or serial title. The fact that the publisher is a government entity really has little effect upon the bibliographic handling of the item. Sometimes the corporate authorship can get a bit tricky but it is not brain surgery or rocket science and with common sense one can usually find the appropriate form for the name of the department, agency or other type of governmental office that produced the document. You will be amazed at how often the item has already been cataloged and appears in World Cat (if you have access to those records) or in the catalog of a large government depository library such as those of your state universities.
Batten, D. (Ed.). (2004). Guide to U.S. government publications. Detroit, MI: Thompson Gale.
Garvin, P. (Ed.). (2003). Government information on the Internet. Lanham, MD: Bernan.
Sankey, M. L. (2006). Public records online: The master guide to private & government online sources of public records (6th ed.). Greenwood, CT: Facts on Demand Press. [This is not a guide to documents but a reference aid for helping patrons find public records online.]
Sears, J. L., & Moody, M. K. (2001). Using government information sources: Electronic and print (3rd. ed.). Westport, CT: Oryx Press.