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Exploring the World of Government Documents

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Government Documents 101

Part I. What, Who and Why

The average researcher likely doesn’t think often about government documents. Unless your specialty is political science, law or government history, government documents don’t seem like an obvious resource to utilize. What is a specialist in literature, psychology or biology going to find of value in government documents?

On the contrary, because the work and research of government encompasses so many aspects of human society and culture, there’s something for everyone within the wealth of information included in government documents. If you’re doubtful, just take a look at the “New Interdisciplinary Studies” section of our site.

With government documents often underutilized in research, we thought we’d offer a primer for researchers to better understand what they are, who creates them and why, and how to begin using them.

What is a Government Document?

A government document is any piece of information produced by a government entity, or at government expense. The term doesn’t have to refer to paper documents, but includes any sort of media: online publications, microforms, CDs or DVDs; along with the many print forms produced such as brochures, magazines and books.

When you think about all the work the government is involved in and helps fund, you can start to see how wide of a reach the term has. The kind of information you’d expect is all there, but alongside it you can discover scientific research, public health information, energy initiatives, and even more surprising, subject areas like gender studies, advertising, and science fiction.

Who creates government documents?

“Government” is actually a pretty broad term and government documents are produced by a wide array of offices, organizations, individuals and departments. International government documents are produced by the governments of most countries, as well as intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations, World Bank and European Union.

In the United States, documents are produced at the federal, state, and local levels. There are documents relating to each of the branches of government, from the early days of the U.S. government’s development up to the present.

Why are government documents created?

These documents are produced for a number of reasons. Sometimes they help to track the work of a department and keep a record of activities performed to meet its goals and objectives. Other times, they are meant to serve as an informational resource for the public. They can also be used to explain the results of research projects funded by the government, describe the details of military missions (although these are often classified for a certain period of time), or even serve as propaganda or marketing to make a case for government actions.

As in any business or organization, there’s a constant need to track activities and produce informational pieces. Systems are in place to ensure that these resources are maintained and made available to the public in order to both let citizens benefit from work produced by their taxes, and help future historians better understand the workings of the government over time.

In Part II, we will offer some suggestions on how to use government documents for ongoing research.  Look for that in next month’s post.

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