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Government Resources

Introduction to Government Documents

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History of GPO/FDLP
(from the GPO Fact Sheet)

The Government Printing Office is part of the legislative branch of the federal government. The Public Printer, who serves as GPO's chief officer, is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. GPO operates under the authority of the public printing and documents chapters of Title 44 of the U.S. Code. Created primarily to satisfy the printing needs of Congress, GPO today is the focal point for printing, binding, and information dissemination for the entire federal community. In addition to Congress, approximately 130 federal departments and agencies rely on GPO's services. Congressional documents, census forms, federal regulations and reports, IRS tax forms, and U.S. passports–all are produced by or through GPO.

At one time GPO's mission was accomplished through the production and procurement of conventional ink-on-paper printing. Today, after more than a generation's experience with electronic printing systems, GPO is at the forefront in providing government information in a wide range of formats, including print, microfiche, CD-ROM, and online technology through the Federal Digital System (FDsys). Today, FDsys links the public to the official publicatinos from all three branches of government.

Through the Superintendent of Documents' programs, GPO disseminates the largest volume of U.S. government publications and information in the world. For those who want to purchase government publications, GPO's documents carry an average price of about $16, although many are low-cost consumer publications. Approximately 9,000 titles are available for sale at any given time. These are sold principally by mail order and through 24 bookstores located in the Washington, DC area and around the country. Publications are also sold through the Consumer Information Center in Pueblo, CO. More than 2,500 sales orders are processed every day.

Government information in both traditional and electronic formats is also made available through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) to more than 1,300 federal depository libraries for the free use of the public. These depository libraries, in turn, provide local, no-fee access to government information in an impartial environment with professional assistance. These libraries are designated by members of Congress or by law as official depositories. Virtually every depository library also has access to the vast range of information made available online via GPO Access.

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What exactly is a government document?

For the purposes of depository libraries, "government documents" are publications produced by or for a federal governmental body and distributed through the FDLP. In the not-too-distant past, all of the documents in the FDLP were "tangible" items, such as print, microfiche, floppy disk, or cd-rom. As technology has expanded, so has the wealth of government information that is available via the Internet. GPO and the FDLP have been in the forefront of electronic dissemination of government information. However, not all the information produced by the federal government is available to depository libraries. Title 44 of the U.S. Code specifies that "Government publications, except those determined by their issuing components to be required for official use only or for strictly administrative or operational purposes which have no public interest or educational value and publications classified for reasons of national security, shall be made available to depository libraries through the facilities of the Superintendent of Documents for public information."

However, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of publications produced by government offices/agencies that are not included in the FDLP. These so-called "fugitive documents" include items that are neither printed through GPO nor furnished by the issuing agencies to the FDLP as required by law.

According to the FDLP (Administrative Notes, 6/15/1997), there are four major factors which have contributed to the increase in fugitive documents:

  1. Electronic information dissemination via agency Web sites without notification to the FDLP;
  2. The decreasing compliance with statutory requirements for agencies to print through GPO or to provide copies of publications not printed through GPO to the FDLP;
  3. The increasing trend for agencies to establish exclusive arrangements with private sector entities that place copyright or copyright-like restrictions on the products involved in such agreements; and
  4. Increasing use by agencies of language in 44 U.S.C. Sec. 1903 that permits publications to be excluded if they are "so-called cooperative publications which must necessarily be sold in order to be self-sustaining."

Another issue to keep in mind is the large body of government information that – while not made available to depository libraries as part of the FDLP – is directly available to citizens through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). To obtain these materials, citizens must contact the issuing agency directly.

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Indiana State Library as a regional depository

The Indiana State Library (located at 140 North Senate Avenue in downtown Indianapolis) is the regional depository library for the state of Indiana. As a regional depository, ISL receives 100% of the items distributed through the FDLP. Doug Conrads, as the State Documents Librarian, has the authority and responsibility for the following (as detailed in the Federal Depository Library Handbook):

  • coordinating in this region the retention of at least one copy of all government publications distributed in tangible format through the Federal Depository Library Program;
  • working with selective depositories in the region, with the Superintendent of Documents, and with depository libraries from other regions to assure that all depositories in the region have free access--either directly, through a telecommunications network, or through interlibrary loan--to all depository materials distributed or made remotely accessible in electronic formats;
  • coordinating the lending of depository materials among depository libraries within the region;
  • granting permission to selective depositories in the region to dispose of depository materials they have held for the five year statutory minimum, and establishing written procedures and guidelines for the transfer of these materials to other depository libraries in the region;
  • providing reference service to selective depository libraries in the region;
  • advising and assisting selective depositories in the region in the interpretation of "Guidelines for the Federal Depository Library Program" and in preparation for GPO inspections;
  • working with selective depositories in the region to promote the effectiveness of depository libraries and to publicize depository libraries to the community.

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University Library as a depository

University Library became a depository for the 10th Indiana Congressional district on December 19, 1979 after the designation was requested by Congressman Andy Jacobs. We were assigned depository number 0183B. Since we do not receive 100% of items distributed through the FDLP, we are known as a "selective depository". 

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Collection development guidelines

While University Library does not yet have a written collection development policy, there are some generally-accepted guidelines we try to follow. Some of these are:

  • The material we select is predominantly that which will complement the University curriculum. However, because the FDLP is intended to benefit all who have access to the documents collections - including those people not affiliated with the University - we also receive some material that falls outside of a strictly-interpreted curriculum. Some of the subject areas that are well represented in our collection are: census and demographics, criminal justice, education, geography and geology, health, labor, and legislation.
  • Because the IUPUI campus has separate law and medical libraries (both of which are also selective depositories), UL largely relies on those institutions to acquire and maintain documents which fall in those subject areas.
  • Instead of trying to create and maintain a historical record of government information, we periodically weed sections of the collection and withdraw items that are no longer relevant or useful.
  • Several serial titles that are received through the FDLP are now cataloged into the LC collection. This means that the newer issues will be shelved with current periodicals, and the back issues are bound and shelved in the general stacks. We believe this practice will serve to make the titles more accessible to our customers.
  • Electronic is better than paper.
  • If we have to pay to get a better product, then we pay.
  • Documents are to be treated like other library collections.

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Do government documents circulate?

Because GPO guidelines mandate that depository libraries make their documents collections accessible to everyone, some people mistakenly believe this means libraries are required to circulate all items received through the FDLP. Conversely, some people think it means that no documents circulate. To clarify, guidelines state only that documents must be made available for use, not that they must circulate. At UL, most of our documents do circulate. There are some, mainly serial titles and those which are shelved in the ready reference collection, which do not circulate.

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Location of government documents

The government documents collections are located across from the service desk on the second floor of the library. Most print volumes will be found in the compact shelving area, near current periodicals. There are also separate collections of government microfiche, microfilm, media, and ready reference items.

As with other library materials, our holdings and call numbers for government documents can be found by using the library's online catalog IUCAT.

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SuDoc numbers

The SuDocs (Superintendent of Documents) call number system is a provenance arrangement—publications are organized based on the issuing agency. So, A call numbers are for the Department of Agriculture, C is Commerce, D is Defense, and so on. There are, of course, exceptions to the straightforward letters: X and Y are used for various Congressional publications.

Following is a VERY basic break-down of a SuDoc number:

  • A 13.1:998
  • First letter indicates issuing department (Department of Agriculture)
  • First whole number before the dot indicates a subordinate office within that department (Forest Service)
  • First whole number after the dot indicates a category of publication, series, or serial title (annual report)
  • Numbers or letters and numbers after the colon represent individual publications, years, issues or editions

One of the most confusing aspects of SuDoc numbers for those new to them is that the number does not read as a decimal, the way LC numbers do. Instead, the numbers before and after the dot are whole numbers. So, while PN 1992.18: would come before PN 1992.3: in LC order, it comes after PN 1992.3 in SuDoc order.

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Selection process

All of the materials that are available to depository libraries are assigned an item number by GPO. Some titles have their own unique item number; for example, the National Drug Code Directory is assigned item number 0475-N. The NDCD is the only title that falls under this item number.

Other item numbers, though, are host to hundreds of distinct titles. The most common occurrence of this is a very broad category of “General Publications” that are issued by a specific office or agency. For example, item number 0612 is the number assigned to the general publications of the Interior Department. If a depository library includes a certain item number in its selection profile, the library must receive ALL titles assigned to that item number.

In June of each year, all depository libraries have the opportunity to add new item numbers to our selection profiles (that is, to the list of item numbers we are supposed to receive). While the documents librarian, has final authority over whether an item number will or will not be added, we do solicit input from the various Subject Librarians.

If we decide to stop receiving a particular item number, we do not have to wait until June to remove it from our selection profile. “Drops” can be done at any time during the year.

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Technical processing

When documents arrive at the library, they first go to the Acquisitions/Cataloging area for processing. Each box is accompanied by a shipping list. Acquisitions checks that list against the list of item numbers on our selection profile, and makes sure that we received everything we were supposed to. If we did not receive something we should have, we can submit a claim to GPO for the missing item. Acquisitions & Cataloging then stamps the items with the date, depository information, and ownership stamps; attaches SuDoc labels; and enters basic fields (title, date, call number, publishing information, and physical description) into the catalog. The items are then sent upstairs to be shelved.

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Withdrawing government documents

GPO guidelines state that depository libraries must retain items received through the FDLP for a minimum of five years. The regional library may grant exceptions to the five-year rule. When a library has identified material it wishes to withdraw, it must prepare a disposal list to submit to the regional library for approval. If the regional does not give permission to withdraw any/all of the titles, then the depository may NOT withdraw the items. Subsequent withdrawal requests for the same material may be granted, if circumstances have changed.

Upon granting permission to withdraw the material, the regional library may request that some of the titles be sent to them to fill in gaps in their collection. The disposal list must also be shared with other depository libraries in Indiana, to allow them the opportunity to request material we are withdrawing.

There are certain documents that can be withdrawn before the statutory five-year period and without permission from the regional library. These "superseded" documents include things such as revised editions of monographs, serials replaced by a cumulative edition, and serials that are re-issued on a frequent/regular basis.

Material that has been withdrawn from the collection will be removed from the library catalog, counted for statistics, and disposed of.

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Major tools for depository librarians

FDLP Desktop
This is the home for tools and publications administered by the FDLP.
GODORT Handout Exchange
GODORT is the Government Documents Round Table of ALA. The Handout Exchange is collection of guides to government information sources written by library staff.
Guide to U.S. Government Publications (also known simply as "Andriot")
Publications are listed in SuDoc order, and are indexed by agency and title; useful also for tracing agencies' histories. Unfortunately, there is no web equivalent to this publication. (Shelved in ready reference, call number Z 1223.Z7 A574.)
Item Lister
Enter a depository library number (ours is 0183B), and get a list of item numbers we select (or don't select, or a combined list of selected/non-selected!)
Superseded List
Lists the materials that may be discarded before the normal 5-year statutory retention period, and gives instructions as to required retention (e.g. keep current year only, keep most recent edition).

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Providing government documents reference service

Government reference service can pose several challenges. First, patrons seeking government information may not have a full understanding of what they're looking for. For instance, a patron may ask for information on "title 20", but not know what bill or legislation it is part of. This, of course, is like asking for chapter 20 out of a book and not knowing the title of the book! Other potential problems that can be encountered at the reference desk are patrons who think 1) that everything related to or produced by the government is available to the public (it's not), or 2) that everything is distributed through the FDLP (it's not). (Farrell, Maggie. Training for Documents Reference in a Merged Reference Center. DttP. 28:4, Winter 2000. p.11-16.)

Misinformed patrons aren't the only obstacles in delivering quality reference service for government information, though. Because the field is so large, diverse, and ever-changing, it's easy for reference staff to get overwhelmed when searching for a particular piece of government information. If this happens to you, don't worry…there are lots of resources that can help:

  • Government information indexes (Catalog of U.S. Government Publications, FDsys) can help locate material on a particular subject;
  • Reference books can help zero in on relevant resources and explain how to use them (Morehead's Introduction to United States Government Information Sources; Notess' Government Information on the Internet; and Robinson's Tapping the Government Grapevine are among the best);
  • Government-specific search engines (Google, Searchgov) help locate Internet sources.
Last updated by dapolley on 03/18/2014