Research Makeover: Digging into Government Websites

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01Aug2014

Research Makeover: Digging into Government Websites

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By Ashley Ahlbrand

office_gal_computerIn several of my posts this year I have mentioned various government resources that can prove helpful in conducting legal research.  For instance, in March I covered several websites that are helpful in administrative law research, such as RegInfo.gov and the e-CFR; and in May I coveredCongress.gov while discussing legislative histories.  This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the amount of information available out there, so for this month’s post, let’s dig a little deeper.

The Catch-Alls

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USA.gov

A great place to start your research is USA.gov, the central portal to US government websites.  Here you can find quick links to sites by agency name or topic.  Their information is not restricted to federal websites either. You will find links to state government sites, as well, and even information for tribal governments.

 

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Data.gov

Data.gov serves as a portal to open government data from all branches of the government.  You can search the site by keyword or browse by topic.  Often when we think of “data” we imagine statistics and numbers, but data really refers to any kind of collected information; so you will find a variety of datasets here, from the more numerical, like monthly house price indexes, to collections of written documents, like executive orders.

 

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FDsys

I have mentioned FDsys, the Federal Digital System, in passing before, but it bears a little more emphasis.  This site, maintained by the Government Printing Office (GPO), is a digital library of authenticated government documents.  Access to the most official form of a document is a critical task in legal research, whether you’re a student performing a cite check for a law journal or an attorney filing the document as evidence in your case.  So remember FDsys. It could come in very handy for you someday.  Searching or browsing the collection, you will find many documents related to Congress here, but you’ll also find economic indicators, select court opinions, and more.  For authenticated government documents, this should definitely be your starting place.

 

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Metalib

Before we leave the GPO, I’d also like to mention a search engine they’ve created, Metalib, that allows you to search multiple federal government databases for reports, articles, and citations.  It’s like an online catalog of the US government and may prove a cost-effective tool in your research.

 

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Archives.gov

Much of the information on agency and department websites is relatively recent, often only going back to the 1990s.  For older information, check out the National Archives and Records Administration.  Their catalog will let you know what you can get online, and what you might have to access in print or through a FOIA request.  If it’s something you can’t get online, they’ll even tell you where you can go to find it.

Sites by Department or Agency

Of course, you don’t have to use a catch-all site to find government information online.  In fact, your research wouldn’t be complete without visiting the department or agency’s website, and you might be surprised what great information you can find there.  Here is just a sampling:

  • Justice.gov – Any agency website is going to give you recent news and press releases, but there’s so much more to be seen.  Look for links to Publications or Resources.  For instance, the Department of Justice’s website has a Resources link that includes Case Highlights from recent cases and Legislative Histories of select laws.  Were you asked to create a legislative history on the Tunney Act?  You may want to check out theirs first.
  • State.gov – You may have been to this website when planning a trip overseas or to learn how to apply for a passport or visa, but that’s just a fraction of what the State Department website provides.  You may find their Key Policy Fact Sheets helpful if you’re researching something that’s trending in the news.  There’s a lot to this site, but you can search or browse the site by topic, speaker, publication, location, or date.  If you’re doing historical research, particularly on foreign affairs, you might be interested in the State Department’s Office of the Historian, where you can browse volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States, from Truman through Carter.  If treaties are more your game, check out the department’s Office of the Assistant Legal Adviser for Treaty Affairs.
  • Census.gov – Okay, census information isn’t at the top of everyone’s research lists, but I have to mention this site because I have used it several times in assisting others with their research.  You can find a variety of datasets and reports here, but what I have found particularly helpful are the data tools they have created, particularly American FactFinder.  This tool allows you to plug in a little bit of information and drill through the census data to find discrete statistics on specific populations.  Does your research require you to find the demographic breakdown of a particular neighborhood?  Yep, you can do that.

More to Explore

This post has focused on federal sites because to get into state sites would take several more posts.  Instead, let me point out a couple of sites that provide quick access to state information to speed your research along:

 

Government information is not the most exciting topic to read about, but having these sites in your research arsenal could come in handy some day!  There are a lot of businesses out there that will try to sell you expensive products that house government information.  But if you look around, and you know where to look, you can find most of this information for free.  That’s not to say that these products are without value. Often they take the government information, package it nicely, and add editorial enhancements to make the product easier to use, but if you’re willing to work a little you can save a lot.  So I invite you to explore these sites the next time government information finds its way into your research.  You might be surprised how much you can find.

“This article was first published on Ms. JD’s Blog.  Ms. JD is a national non-profit dedicated to the success of aspiring and early career women lawyers.  To learn more about Ms. JD or to see additional articles like this one, go to www.ms-jd.org.”

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