Informing the Student Citizen

Government Documents at Adams Library

By Rachel H. Carpenter

Reference Librarian and Coordinator of Government Documents
James P. Adams Library, Rhode Island College

The United States Government produces a staggering amount of information in an impressive array of formats - in print and digitally, single pages and bound volumes, microfiche, CD-rom, DVD, interactive databases and internet web sites. Its publications include everything from blank forms to over 200 years of Congressional debate, hearings, and legislation; from posters and consumer brochures to interactive databases of demographic and economic statistics; from the U.S. Quarterly Hogs and Pigs Inventory ( to the 10 MB searchable and downloadable Budget of the United States Government ( Government information is public information, paid for by tax dollars, and often mandated by law. Much, but far from all of this information is made available to citizens - in the present age, much of it via the Internet and the World Wide Web. Since 1813, publicly accessible libraries have had a role in the dissemination, maintenance and preservation of government information for the purpose of making it readily available to the American public.1.

It is a commonly and widely held ideal that U.S. citizens have, or should have, the right to know the business of their government - because it is their business. And, it has been argued that the system of checks and balances embedded in the Constitution and the rights of citizens set forth in the Bill of Rights have served ultimately to underscore the idea that the people have a "right to know." 2. But "the melancholy fact" as Professor Joe Morehead writes in the Introduction to United States Government Information (6th) "is that nothing inheres in the Constitution or statutes granting the right to be informed" 3.

James Madison, the 4th American president and the author of much of the text of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, has been hailed as a champion of the public's "right to know," stemming in part from the following oft quoted lines from his 1822 letter to W.T. Barry:

"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." 4.

Interestingly, John Spence Walters claims in his book, U.S. Government Publication. Ideological Development and Institutional Politics from the Founding to 1970, that Madison actually rejected the idea of citizen participation in the democratic process, beyond voting, because "informing the public was inextricably linked to political accountability" ... and " uninformed public fostered the detachment and disinterestedness with which he [Madison] expected elected officials to conduct public business." 5.

Madison's axiom should, of course, be read and considered in the full context of his letter to Barry, and of his overall political philosophy; yet standing alone, it imparts great wisdom and advice. The necessity and responsibility of citizens to be informed regarding matters of government is fundamental to the success of a democracy.

As a participating institution in the American Democracy Project, Rhode Island College encourages its students to be more involved in the communities around them, and to be active participants in our democracy. An important goal of the American Democracy Project is "to produce graduates who understand and are committed to engaging in meaningful actions as citizens in a democracy." ( Being more involved requires being better informed. The process towards increasing civic engagement will be well served by students being aware of and utilizing the wealth of information resources produced by our government.

In this essay I hope to advocate for a wider familiarity and use of government information resources in general, but particularly for students - as students and as citizens. I will include a brief history of the role of the Government Printing Office and its Federal Depository Library Program; an overview of the federal documents collection of the James P. Adams Library and offer suggestions for encouraging students to use these important public resources.

The Government Printing Office and the Federal Depository Library Program

Since 1861, the Government Printing Office (GPO) has had the responsibility of being the central agency through which the printing, managing and distribution of government publications takes place. Managing the publishing needs of government has never been an easy task, for a number of reasons; significant among them, the sheer quantity of materials to be printed and the lack of cooperation the GPO has often received from other government agencies and departments. In the 20th century, the burgeoning size of the executive branch and the increasing influence and power of some executive departments eroded GPO's role as the central clearinghouse and printer of public information. Departments and agencies circumvented the GPO by setting up their own printing facilities or contracting with commercial facilities and establishing their own mechanisms for disseminating (or not) their publications. This bypassing of GPO resulted in thousands of essentially unknown government publications which have had little or no bibliographic control, preservation, or public availability.6. The development of desktop and web publishing software in the last decade has continued to exacerbate this problem.7.

In addition to printing activity, the GPO houses the Office of the Superintendent of Documents, which oversees bibliographic control and distribution of government documents. Bibliographic control is the cataloging and indexing of publications to provide standardized description and organization to aid in discovery and retrieval. GPO catalogs all formats of government information including electronic formats such as CD-ROMs and DVDs, online or digital publications - both PDF and hypertext- databases, web pages and web sites. Cataloging of online documents is particularly important considering the elusive and often non-permanent nature of such documents. Information resources which are "born digital" (i.e. begin as an online or web resource) and have no print counterpart, are ephemeral in every sense of the word. These documents get posted and then "taken down;" moved, replaced or buried under layers of web pages and links, and even completely disappear. Like the print publications mentioned earlier that do not travel the route through the GPO, these documents often will not be cataloged or indexed in any of the standard finding aids. They are not distributed to federal depository libraries and they are not sold at GPO book stores. There may be no effort to authenticate or preserve these documents. It is impossible to know how many of these "fugitive documents" have come and gone, but the problem of "fugitive documents" is pervasive, and has been throughout the 20th century.

The GPO has been working towards a resolution to the problems of bibliographic control and "fugitive documents" and has recently contracted with the Harris Corporation to develop an integrated system for managing official government content "which will verify and track versions [of documents], assure authenticity, preserve content and provide permanent access." 8. This system will also become the basis for the development of a national bibliography of government information resources.

The ubiquitous nature of the internet and the World Wide Web, has in ways, been a real boost to public access to state and federal information; however, the preservation, authentication, and the stability of online documents are very big concerns of librarians and scholars and of the GPO. It is not acceptable for original documents to come and go without a trace. It is not acceptable for primary-resource materials to be digitized and widely disseminated without a mechanism guaranteeing their content as original and official. It is not acceptable for public documents to be born digital and not be converted to some kind of permanent copy to be preserved as part of a national archive. All of this has been occurring. The GPO, in spite of a serious and steady lack of resources, has managed to stay focused on these concerns and to adapt practices to the changing technology. It is important to remember we still have over 200 years of government information and documents that are not digital and that we must continue to use, preserve, and ultimately convert to the current technology of today or whatever it will be when the time and resources are available.

The Depository Collections at the James P. Adams Library of Rhode Island College

The dissemination and distribution of government documents through libraries fall within the scope of the GPO's Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), the roots of which travel deep into the early years of the 19th Century. The FDLP currently distributes documents to over 1250 designated federal depository libraries (FDLs). The James P. Adams Library at Rhode Island College is one of 12 in the state of Rhode Island. The others are Brown University, Providence College, the University of Rhode Island, Roger Williams University, the Naval War College, the Rhode Island State House Library, the Rhode Island State Law Library, Providence Public Library, Newport Public Library, Warwick Public Library, and the Westerly Public Library.

The obvious advantage to being a depository library is the documents themselves since a depository library receives them for free. "Free" of course, is a relative term, because one cannot ignore the resources depository libraries use in developing, housing, maintaining and generally providing expertise and access, as well as providing equipment and hardware to view and copy materials.

Every FDL is required to provide full, open access to its public document collections. In RI, all academic institutions, with the exception of Brown University and the Naval War College, are open to the general public as a matter of standard policy. At Brown, an individual must inform staff at the entrance to the library that they are in need of federal or state documents. The Naval War College library doesn't actually restrict access, yet by virtue of their location at a military facility where security is a concern, on site visitation to the facility can be difficult. In such circumstances and for documents otherwise not locally available, interlibrary loan services are used.

Adams Library has been a federal depository library since 1965. Our collection includes classes and categories of government materials that meet the curricular needs of our students as well as the interests of the general public. Our collection is strongest in Education Department materials and those of Health & Human Services and the Department of Commerce. URI collects much more from the Department of Agriculture - nearly 90% - than any other RI depository. The U.S. Naval War College collects 13% of the total GPO output, but selects 43% of the Defense Department publications compared to RIC's 2%. 9. The depository collections in RI represent more than 90 percent of all of the publications issued by the GPO through the FDLP.

Adams library collects 28% of the current offerings of the GPO. The bulk of our existing collection is in print, since we have retained many of the documents we have acquired over our 40 years in the program. We continue to receive documents in microfiche, though this format is diminishing. CD and DVD formats are collected as well. As would be expected, much of what is available is also in digital or online formats. Currently 92% of all that is offered by the GPO is available digitally. The remaining 8 percent are materials that are, at this time, too problematic to be generated in an online format. 10.

In 2002, the Government Publications Librarian at Adams Library retired. In the same year we hired a new director who felt that some organizational changes involving Government Documents would improve services and the use of resources. It was decided that the Government Documents Department would become a service area of the Reference Department. I took on the role of coordinator of the depository collection though all Reference librarians assist library users with government information resources. The decision was also made at this time to integrate the depository collection at Adams into the main library collection.

Integration will mean that, rather than having a separate collection of government documents arranged by its own Superintendent of Documents (Su Doc) Classification System, these documents will be classed in the Library of Congress Classification system and interfiled with the library's main collection. The benefit of integrating the government documents collection into the main collection is that it brings together most of the resources a library holds on a subject into the same physical location. This improves visibility and access while browsing. The drawbacks for integration lie primarily in the logistics of changing what is already in place. All items in the collection will need to be reclassed, relabeled, physically moved and interfiled - a huge undertaking. Though items get weeded as part of regular collection management, the collection has not been systematically weeded since it began. Before beginning integration of this collection, it will need to be thoroughly weeded.

It is important to include at this time a mention of state publications and information. Like the federal government, state governments are also gatherers, producers and distributors of information. In many states, the agency that coordinates the dissemination of government documents and information is the state library. In Rhode Island, which does not have a state library, the State House Library is responsible for this activity. The State House Library houses the RI State Publications Clearinghouse, which operates similarly to the Superintendent of Documents office within the GPO. The purpose and operation of the State Clearinghouse mimics the federal system, including, unfortunately, the problems of limited budget and staffing resources and the lack of cooperation from other state agencies. Nearly all of RI's academic libraries and most public libraries are depositories for state government documents.

The Use of Government information by Students

Government documents are largely, but not solely, primary source materials, i.e. a first hand accounting of an event or the originating point of data or information. It is this primary data that is used to write our histories and social analyses and to develop government policies, programs and services which support the nation's social, economic, cultural and political life. The primary-source nature of these documents is one of the things that make them valuable for the researcher, including the student researcher. A common request at our Reference Desk is: "What is [or] where can I get primary sources for my topic or paper?" Government publications can, in many cases, meet this need for primary materials. Our collection includes standard and widely used primary documents like the Congressional Record which we have in print back to 1937 and which is also electronic from 1994 to the present. ( The World Wide Web has allowed for easy access to materials and resources that have until recently only been available at a single physical location like the National Archives or the Library of Congress. A marvelous example is the Library of Congress' American Memory website which ( offers visual and audio access to a wealth of materials from the Library's collections. Included are such resources as the Work Progress Administration's California Folk Music Project and its 35 hours of musical recordings of different ethnic groups found in Northern California in the 1930s. ( The American Factfinder site of the Census Bureau ( is an interactive database of detailed U.S. population statistics that can be telescoped to the zip code or even narrower census tract levels. The National Institutes of Health and Department of Health and Human Services sites include many original research studies and data sources on current public health concerns such as stem cell research, flu vaccines, e- coli, etc. These are but a very few examples of the types of primary materials available from the government and accessible at or via depository library collections.

We have not conducted use studies on the government documents collection at Adams Library. The limited circulation and in-house use figures we have do not indicate whether the circulation of materials is by student, staff, faculty or other status of user, therefore, our knowledge regarding the use of this collection is mostly anecdotal. Our collection is cataloged, so these materials are discovered through the HELIN catalog. We know that the collection is used, mostly by students but also by faculty and the general public and by users throughout the HELIN network of libraries and through interlibrary lending.

I have found that government documents can confound users. A student might not be sure what genre of material a government publication is. Many formats are ephemeral such as slip laws, brochures, posters, and newsletters. Many documents come through as simply stapled pages or single pages, or as "occasional" publications, technical reports, preprints, etc. Are these books, monographs, articles? Are these "scholarly" materials or are they even credible materials? Government documents found online often invite the same questions. The websites, like their departments and agencies, are vast in their content; multi faceted, multi layered, non-standardized and often with many "moving parts," i.e. hypertext links, interactive databases, oft revamped and redesigned pages, disappearing documents, etc. Using them can be exciting and intensely frustrating. Citing such resources can be very problematic since, too often, simply determining an author or date or issuing agency is near impossible. From discovering such resources to attempting to find them a day later, they defy conventions and "defy gravity." I've encountered students who simply did not wish to deal with these questions and, thus, these materials.

Yet, certain courses and programs offered at RIC call for considerable use of government documents and data. Our library instruction program schedules a number of classes most semesters that include a significant focus on using government resources. Geography 101, Political Science 308 and History 200 all incorporate the use of resources like census data, legislative and case law resources and publications like the Congressional Record, Public Papers of the Presidents and other primary public documents. Social Work undergraduate and graduate classes are introduced to government resources, as are upper level and graduate classes in Education. These students examine legislation and legislative histories, hearings and reports in order to analyze and/or evaluate public policies. Students taking Business, Government and Society examine regulatory agencies and the rules and regulations (found in the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register) under which industries, agencies and businesses function.

Increasing Student Use of Government Information

As faculty, we would all acknowledge, I'm sure, that regardless of the courses or programs with which we are involved, what we want to teach students is knowledge, skills and philosophies that can be used in broader life experiences. We hope that we are teaching thinking and decision-making skills, research, writing and communication skills, and we hope that students will use these skills in more than their jobs and professions. We hope that they will use them as parents and neighbors, as volunteers and consumers, as voters, - essentially, as citizens. Increasing student knowledge of and encouraging the use of government information resources in coursework hopefully will serve to increase lifelong use of these resources.

As the library staff works to improve access to both print and online government materials, we will increase our own knowledge and use of these documents and advocate for these resources in more direct ways. Our work at the Reference desk presents us with constant teachable moments- one-to-one opportunities to explore with students their assignments, topics, and information needs. I encourage students, more and more, to utilize government documents and information, in addition to book and article references. I do so because these materials cover a broad array of topics and because they are widely available in our library, in the HELIN network of libraries and in special depository collections throughout the state. I do so because these are credible and useable materials and because they are good sources for primary data. I do so because they are widely available on the Internet. And I do so because they represent the workings of our federal and state governments and thus, are significant resources to all of us as citizens.

  • I urge all faculty to encourage and require students to use federal and state data and publications, just as you might require them to use books and journal articles. In doing so, please take the opportunity to inform students that Adams Library is a depository for both federal and state government documents.
  • If students are required to use primary source materials, suggest government documents as resources which may suit their particular need. Encourage students to speak to a Reference librarian for assistance with these materials.
  • If assignments require statistics, remind students that many statistics originate from government resources and studies. Require that students find the data source rather than use statistics located in secondary sources and websites. In most cases the source information should be referenced in the secondary source. If a source is not obvious, a librarian will be able to help. As always, recommend that they ask for assistance. Librarians will help identify and locate an original document in hard copy or online.
  • If you schedule library instruction sessions and specifically want government information mentioned or highlighted, please do not hesitate to ask. And we will certainly recommend government resources if we feel they will add real value for students.


My goal is to increase the use of government information resources by student researchers and to make our depository collection dynamic-a visible, accessible and useful resource for all library users. Developing the collection through regular review of our selection profile and providing quality bibliographic control of these resources, in all of their forms, will improve visibility and access. Integrating this collection into the library's main collection will place these resources together with other library materials in a subject area, also making them more visible. Emphasizing these resources in more library instruction sessions and in individual reference interactions will underscore their usefulness. Reminding and encouraging teaching faculty to advocate for government information resources will also enhance familiarity and will add to the credibility of these materials in student's eyes. Continuing to coordinate with other depository libraries in RI to enrich holdings statewide will enhance access to public information for all Rhode Islanders. Encouraging and teaching students to become better informed, as well as more involved citizens, will benefit them and the communities in which we all live and work.

Page last updated: Wednesday, May 23, 2007