The Internet as a Research Tool:

Dispelling the Myths

A day-long workshop at the

14th Computers & Writing Conference

University of Florida, Gainesville

May 28-31, 1998

Finding Government Documents

presented by

Judith (Judy) Feller

Government Documents Librarian

Kemp Library, East Stroudsburg University

East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania



A workshop on using the Internet for research wouldn't be complete without discussing government documents. In the simplest terms, government documents are the publications of government agencies - local, state, national, international. The content of documents reflects the missions of the agencies which publish them, for example: protecting the environment; promoting healthy living; controlling crime; setting foreign policy; passing laws; interpreting laws.

Government documents may be books, periodicals, maps, charts, forms, pictures, videotapes. Until early in this decade, print and microform were the most common distribution formats. With the wider availability of personal computers, the United States government began to distribute more of its publications on floppy disks and CD-ROMs. The Bureau of the Census published the major files of the 1990 Census of Population and Housing on CD-ROM, and other federal agencies were quick to adopt the CD-ROM as a distribution format. With the phenomenal growth of the Internet, a veritable tidal wave of government information - local through international - has appeared there, as well.

Why use information from government documents?

Students use government publications without realizing it. Periodicals such as Public Health Reports, American Education, Occupational Outlook Quarterly, and Monthly Labor Review are government documents. Citing articles from them poses no unusual problems. On the other hand, although documents may have personal authors, most frequently the authors are departments, bureaus, divisions, committees, or a bewildering combination of them all. A surprising number of students have told me that they couldn't use great information found in documents such as Congressional committee hearings because they didn't know how to cite them. That's when I take them to an excellant manual that also includes examples of how to cite documents in electronic formats. The title is:

Garner, Diane and Debora Cheney. Complete guide to citing government information resources. Bethesda, MD, 1994.

Over two hundred years of United States history is still available only in print or microform, but the Internet has greatly simplified identifying and finding current government information. For school and other small libraries with Internet access, but limited print resources, it is a virtual treasure trove. For the growing number of people with personal computers and modems, there is a world of information at their command, without leaving home.

Yes, you can find government information using an Internet search engine, but it's usually more efficient to go directly to the source. In this session, we're going to tour four sites. We'll look at bibliographies, full-text databases, and special statistical compilations.

United State Government Printing Office (GPO)

Would you think of a "Printing Office" as a likely Internet starting point? Don't be deceived. The GPO doesn't have the panache of the CIA or FBI, but you may be surprised at what you find. Internet sites tend to have many layers of information, and navigating to what you want can be time-consuming and frustrating. To alleviate that problem, the GPO has organized information available from U.S. government agencies in a variety of convenient ways.

Set your browser to:

  2. Select "Access to government information products" ( ), then

"Find government information"( html)

2. Go back to "Find Government Information on GPO Access" and select "Browse Government Internet Sites by Topic"

Take a few minutes to explore this ingenious index, thenů

3. Go back to "Find Government Information on GPO Access."

Note that entries in the MOCAT are only for publications available in depository libraries. This GPO version is not as complete as the printed edition or the commercial electronic versions.

We'll just do a simple search. In the window where it says, "Enter search term(s)" type the word, <Roswell> and click on "Submit."

You should have 17 hits.

Does a library near you have one of these publications? Click on "Locate Libraries," then follow the examples and enter your state or area code.

Among your handouts is a brochure about the Federal Depository Library System.* The System is a very important program for providing access to information from the U.S. government.

Publications listed in the Monthly Catalog don't stay in print forever. To see if #5 or #8 is still in print, proceed to the next step.

4. Go back to "Find Government Information on GPO Access." and select "Search and Order From Sales Product Catalog."

Type <Roswell report case closed> in the search window and click on "submit."

The first citation listed should be for Roswell report: case closed. Notice that the second line is "Availability" and the title is in stock. The description gives more information about the contents of the document.

5. Go back to "Find Government Information on GPO Access" and select "Search Databases Online via GPO Access."

Another handout you should have received, GPO Access, describes some of the free databases and the electronic bulletin board which can be searched at this site. It explains how to log on through the Internet, dial-in, or telnet. Read more about GPO Access at u_docs/whatis.html.

Note the issue information, including month, year, and H (House) or S (Senate) section

You have a choice of text, PDF (portable document format), or Summary.

If you want to view a PDF file, you need to have Adobe Acrobat loaded on your pc.

The size of each file is also given. It is wise to check the Summary first, since some files are enormous and may take a very long time to load. We're ready to move on to the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress

As its name implies, the Library of Congress (LC) was first established as the research library for Congress, and that is still one of its important missions. However, it has evolved into the national library of the United States and has become one of the world's great research libraries. Like the Government Printing Office site, the Library of Congress provides indexes and finding aids for information found at its own site, but it also provides many links to information available from state and foreign governments Internet sites.

Set your browser to

1. Scroll down the page to "Research tools" and click on window's scroll bar to bring up the list of choices.

Explore each of the following titles (select one, then click on the GO window)

Handbook of Latin American Studies -

2. Next, return to "Research tools" (at

Select "Explore the Internet: resources beyond the library" and click GO

"State and Local Government" ( al/state/stategov.html)

Try to answer these questions using StateSearch:

It's time to move on to the next site.


The United States government is one of the world's most prolific publishers of statistics. The Census of Population and Housing is probably its best-known data collection program, but the Census Bureau conducts other censuses such as agriculture, economics, transportation, and governments. Agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Labor are mega-collectors of data, too. Many of these statistical programs are tied to the collection and dissemination of other useful information, as you'll see as we explore this site.

Set your browser to

As you explore this site, note that most of the information is shown in windows, and you only see the Fedstats URL where you would normally see the address of the site your are visiting.

Is there a State Data Center in your state? Find out by going back to your state map and selecting "State Data Centers" from the menu below the map.

How much information about your state or county can you find on the Internet? Here's an exercise you can try on your own.

Profiling Your Community

This is an exercise in finding information - much of it statistical - about your community through government documents on the Internet. A good place to begin is StateSearch -

You may find everything you need at your state's Web site, but all Web sites are not created equal. The links described below will lead you to information you may not be able to find at home. Don't be surprised if county or state information is all you can find. There are a few exceptions, but it is often difficult to find specific figures below the county level.

For a comprehensive listing of available federal statistical programs, go to FedStats


At the Census Bureau's Web site, ,

you can tailor your search to the block level; however, the site is heavily used, so be patient!

Use the STFs [Summary Tape Files]

STF1A: General population profile (100% count) "Group quarters" table includes figures on the homeless

STF3A: Social & Economic characteristics (data was compiled by sampling) in addition to the many detailed tables, there are 4 general profiles - Social, Labor, Income, Housing - for each geographic level

You can also start by using the U.S. Census Bureau: p/www/index.html



National Weather Service -


Crime in the United States -


Agriculture. You make data queries by geographic area - county, state, or ZIP code)


Start with your state's department of education


STF3A - housing - look for tables on types of residential water supplies, sewage, and type of heating fuel


List of Superfund Sites -


TRI - Toxic Release Inventory, available at the Environmental Defense Fund's site, "Chemical Scorecard" /


"Surf Your Watershed" -


See if your state has a department of environmental protection or similar agency


STF3A - housing tables include figures indicating age of houses, value

The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) web site -


Bureau of Labor Statistics -


Most states have a department of conservation or tourism. Also try the National Park Service- and the Bureau of Land Management -


Bureau of Transportation Statistics - State and local information at Fedstats -

Vital and Health Statistics

Centers for Disease Control -

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: ml

National Center for Health Statistics

Healthy People 2000 reviews http ://

Monthly Vital Statistics Report


United Nations

Unless you're familiar with the organization, it may not be easy to find your way around this site. There's more than meets the eye, though, and patient exploration will reward you. Set your browser to:

Want to brush up on your French, Spanish, or Russian? On the home page, you can select one of those languages for viewing the site.

1. Begin by clicking on "About the UN." (

Notice the variety of documents available in full text such as the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2. Go back to the home page (

Is there a United Nations depository library near you (your home or institution)?

3. Return to the DHL home page (

Under the menu headed "Information Resources," click on Reference guides and take a few minutes to see what some of them are.

4. Return to the UN home page (

Select "Databases" (

A few of these are subscription-based (MBS and International Treaties) but you may preview them free. The databases of particular interest are: Land Mines; REFWORLD; Relief Web; Social Indicators. Take a few minutes to explore one of them.

5. Return to the UN home page

Select "UN Documents" (

The menu is extensive, and we could take another hour to explore. For someone with no experience using UN publications, the selection UN Documentation: Research Guide is the most appropriate place to begin, but it's where I have to end this presentation.


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98-07-12 / Alan Rea