The Government Domain: Government Documents in the NewsBy Peggy Garvin, Published on November 3, 2006
"According to a congressional report…"
"In an official statement released today…"
"A new government report reveals…"
"A major reform bill moving through Congress…"
If you have ever spent any time as a reference librarian, these seemingly harmless phrases so popular with journalists have one effect: your brain clicks into search-for-clues mode. Others might think the story is interesting, or not, but you are thinking "what's the report title?" and "it's from which agency? dated when?" Assembling clues to identify the documents alluded to in the story, you move on to thinking about how to get your hands on this report, or statement, or bill. Often, in the back of your mind (or is this just me?), you are shouting something like "just give us the bill number!" or "would it hurt you to specify this is draft legislation?" at the imagined reporter. I am not a journalist, I don't know, but perhaps those details are left out of the story because they might bog it down with distracting detail. Or because someone handed the document to the reporter, who has no idea how others might get a copy. Maybe there is an assumption that most people are not interested in seeing a 200-page congressional report on pension plans or a commission report on the Postal Service. And if they are interested, they can always just ask a librarian.
In these cases, one website has come to our rescue for many years: Documents in the News from the University of Michigan Library's Documents Center. Hot documents are organized by topic, such as "CIA Leak Investigation" and "Hamdan v. Rumsfeld." The site also has an archive of all of the newsworthy documents it has featured from 1995 to the present. The Michigan site does not attempt to collect everything, however. It's a logical place to start; you just might not finish here.
University of Michigan Library Documents Center - Documents in the News
Aside from Michigan, other libraries have stepped up to find and link to newsworthy documents.
- The Documents in the News page from the Northeastern University School of Law library links to newsworthy national and international documents. Because Northeastern is in Boston, the page also highlights Massachusetts judicial documents. The Northeastern site is helpful when school is in session but appears to go on hiatus for the summer and winter breaks.
- Hot Docs: Government Documents in the News is maintained by Columbia University Libraries. The described scope of the page is "links to full text documents or reports about major governmental activities--New York City, New York State, U.S. Federal, or international--which have been featured in the news."
- Documents in the News from the Washington State Library has a local focus and an innovative approach. The site links to articles from newspapers around the state. Each news headline comes with a summary, prepared by the library, linking to the "supporting government reports, legislation, court decisions, statistics, and regulations" seldom provided on the newspaper site itself.
- New Mexico News Plus from New Mexico State Library is a similar, and equally admirable, service.
Washington Secretary of State - Documents in the News
Some web-based services collect documents on specific topics. Diplomacy Monitor, from the St. Thomas University School of Law, is designed to "globally track diplomatic and international trade communiqués, official statements, press briefings, position papers, interview transcripts and news releases from hundreds of government sources." As with most sites described in this column, Diplomacy Monitor arranges links in reverse chronological order (making it easier to match current documents with current events) and by topic (making it easier to research events back in time). Diplomacy Monitor also has unique indexes appropriate for its content: documents arranged by the source nation, documents by the target nation, documents from a specific nation about a second specific nation, and more.
Librarians are using the blogosphere to help with the hunt for documents. From the editor/publisher of LLRX.com, Sabrina I. Pacifici, we have the current awareness blog beSpacific. The beSpacific blog describes itself as "daily law and technology news with links to reliable primary and secondary sources on e-government, copyright, privacy, government documents, cybercrime and ID theft, the Patriot Act, and freedom of information, etc." In the law and technology arena, it is an exemplary source for links to hot documents on the web.
For a focus on legal documents in the news, the documents section of JURIST, based at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, is an excellent place to turn. The documents section has three parts: the Gazette, with a quick look at all current documents; USA File, with U.S. documents; and World File, with documents from around the globe. JURIST's primary service is not documents, but news. Quite logically, when a JURIST news story mentions a document or legal opinion, there is a link to the referenced item.
Big mainstream media has not completely ignored the potential for documents links.
For example, the Washington Post had an August 12 story on the Israel/Lebanon UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (initially online as part of a press release), and the page linked to the draft resolution available at the time. Still, you will not find too many of these document links, and chances are you will not find a link to any legislation described in a news story. The special Votes Database project is one place where the Post does link off their site to bills on THOMAS. Why not integrate these with the related news stories? The Post's website has won many awards, and the Post says "we are not just on the Web, we are of the Web." It is a great site and I will keep getting news there, but it won't be my documents library.
Other big news sites link to the source documents now and then. The New York Times website ran an August 12, 2006 AP story about the latest retail sales numbers and linked off-site to the release at the Census Bureau. National Public Radio had an August 2, 2006 story on the Government Accountability Office report on border security and linked off-site to that report. The Houston Chronicle documented the Enron crisis in detail as a special feature, and its timeline includes many links to Enron documents.
Copyright and licensing restrictions are often mentioned as the major impediments to linking related information on the Web. In most cases, U.S. government documents are free of these restrictions. More can be done to link the news to the documents that support or create the news. For now, look to libraries, librarians, and law schools for those links.
[Note: Thanks to the Free Government Information blog for the post that inspired this column.]