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Government Documents Primer

Last Updated 2/2008 Direct feedback on this page to lawlib@umn.edu.

Definition of Government Publication 

"Government publication" ..., means informational matter which is published as an individual document at Government expense, or as required by law" according to 44 USC 1901.  Many government documents are made available to the public through the libraries of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) whose collective mission is to provide free use of documents to the general public without impediments. The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) distributes documents at no cost through the FDLP to its depository libraries, and in turn, these libraries must comply with the provisions of Title 44 of the U.S. Code as well as other guidelines issued by the GPO.   The libraries of the FDLP bear the costs of processing, collection development & maintenance, and access services.  The FDLP is a partnership between GPO and participating depository libraries.

Government documents include official court reports, congressional documents for legislative history, official statutes & regulations, and many other categories of material, increasingly including many publications now available in electronic formats.  The future of the FDLP will be intertwined with emerging technologies and the U.S. government's commitment to releasing more information in electronic format only.

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Definition & History of Depository Libraries 

In 1828, a joint resolution of Congress required a portion of the public documents deposited in the Library of Congress to be distributed to various federal government libraries and public and university libraries of each state (4 Stat. 321). This was the origin of the FDLP, and it now includes approximately 1400 depository libraries across the United States and its territories. Currently, the types of libraries that can become designated as depositories include: libraries of land-grant colleges, executive departments, service academies, independent agencies; highest state appellate court library at the request of the court; and accredited law schools. Not more than two additional libraries in a state may be designated a depository by each senator from the state without Congressional approval. Additionally, not more than two libraries in each state and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico may be designated by a senator as a regional depository library. A regional depository is required to retain at least one copy of all government publications, unlike selective depositories, which may select documents based on relevance to their collections. The University of Minnesota Government Publications Library serves as the regional depository library for Minnesota and South Dakota.

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University of Minnesota Law Library (UMLL): Depository #0294A. 

The eagle-and-book emblem at the entrance to the Library signifies that UMLL is a(n) FDLP depository library, #0294A.  We primarily collect law-related items from Congress, the Judiciary, and the Justice Department, as well as administrative decisions of many executive agencies. The List of Classes is the official listing of publications available for selection by depository libraries participating in the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). The list is arranged by the Superintendent of Documents classification numbering system and is designed to group together publications by the same government author.  Our collection contains approximately 14% of the items available through the FDLP!  Some publications from the 14% which we select at UMLL are also available electronically (see below).

Some documents are still issued in paper and/or microfiche.  The hardcopy (paper) documents are classified in our Superintendant of Documents (SuDocs) Collection on the Second Floor.  Although most of our microfiche is located in the microforms room on the Plaza Level, some is also located in on-site storage due to space limitations.  Items in on-site storage are available for retrieval by request during regular library hours.

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U.S. Government Information . . . ELECTRONICALLY.

UMLL also receives government information via the U.S. Government Printing Office's Federal Digital System (FDsys).  It provides direct online connections to many important primary sources, such as the Federal Register, congressional bills, congressional documents, the U.S. Code, and the Congressional Directory.  Links for electronic government publications are included in MNCAT Discovery.

Of the 14% of publications UMLL selects from the List of Classes (above), many are also available electronically on government web servers.  Though some of these publications may be available via FDsys, many others are beyond the scope of that service.

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Organization of government documents.

At UMLL, government documents titles can be found in different locations.  Always start with MNCAT Discovery Catalog (the online public catalog of the University of Minnesota Twins Cities campus libraries, including Law. Government publications at UMLL are cataloged in MNCAT Discovery. The University of Minnesota's Government Publications Library (GPL) at Wilson Library is a regional depository and as such theoretically receives 100% of items available for distribution to FDLP libraries. If we don't have a particular item at UMLL, it's very possible it will be held at GPL.

Most UMLL government documents titles are found in the U.S. (GOVERNMENT) DOCUMENTS COLLECTION on the Second Floor of the library in stack sections C and D (see map).  They are arranged according to the Superintendent of Documents (SuDocs) classification system.  The MICROFORMS COLLECTION on the Plaza Level includes documents in microfiche format cataloged and arranged according to SuDocs classification.  Many documents are also included in other COLLECTIONs.  Search MNCAT Discovery or request reference assistance to locate these documents.

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Finding Government Documents

The Catalog of U. S. Government Publications (1994-) is the most comprehensive index available for government published information from the GPO. It continues, and is preceded by, The Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications (1895-).  UMLL holds the Monthly Catalog in its hardcopy collection at GP3.8: in the U.S. Documents section on the Second Floor..  On Westlaw, licensed users can search the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications (GPO-CTLG) from 1976 to the present. Non-GPO publications, or those issued directly by agencies themselves, may not be accessible through the Monthly Catalog.  These fugitive publications escape the distribution system.

The United States Government Manual contains information regarding the organization, authority, publications, and functions of the government and its agencies. It also provides assistance in locating government personnel. Other useful directories for finding people in government are found in the Reference Office.  They include the Federal Regulatory Directory, Inside Washington, the official Congressional Directory, and the Federal Yellow Book.

The List of Classes of United States Government Publications Available for Selection by Depository Libraries, found at the UMLL Reference Desk and also via FDLP web site, is an in-depth outline and useful tool for locating government documents by publishing agency and/or department. Examples of the SuDoc system: "A" designates Department of Agriculture; "J" the Department of Justice; "Ju" the Judiciary; and "X" and "Y" include publications of Congress.

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Annual Reports

An annual report can tell a great deal about an agency, its personnel, and its functions. It may also discuss litigation and statistics concerning cases, settlements, and dispositions.  To find annual reports, seach MNCAT Discovery, consult The List of Classes, and/or request reference assistance.

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As the single largest information gatherer, the federal government provides a wealth of statistical and demographic information.  For instance, the Department of Justice compiles criminal justice statistics, the Department of Labor gathers labor statistics, and various other departments and agencies do the same. A comprehensive way to access these statistics is through the ProQuest Statiscal Insight.  Also consider the Statistical Abstract of the United States and various world almanacs.  Finally, the University of Minnesota Government Publications Library has gathered many statistics-related links worth consideration.

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Borrowing government documents.

Many government documents circulate according to established Library procedures which apply to all of our materials.  However, some documents in REFERENCE and PRIMARY law COLLECTIONS do not circulate due to their primary legal status and their permanent reference value.  These are strictly for in-library use.