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From Ugly Duckling to Swan: The Hidden Beauty in Government Information

by Dorothy Ormes on May 9, 2014

My first love is the art of storytelling. One story that impressed me as a child was Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Ugly Duckling. We all know the story. A mother duck finds a singularly ugly baby in her nest and the other ducks make fun of him until suddenly, at maturity, he discovers he’s a swan. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Government documents, like that ugly duckling, have hidden potential. Over the years, hard-copy materials have been boxed up by the Government Printing Office (GPO) and sent to more than 1,200 university, public, and special libraries in the United States that agree to act as depositories for the information through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). The government documents librarians who oversee these collections are committed to their unique role and expertise. Currently, depository libraries, both academic and public, are poised to bring government documents into the mainstream of information since so many of these resources are now available online. Unfortunately, due to the current drastic budget cuts libraries are facing, this information is a threatened resource that all librarians should be prepared to defend. The best way to preserve valuable government information is to promote its use to our patrons. Let’s not wait until what we’ve got is gone!

Public librarians are an essential first stop for patrons, especially young people, who seek out government information. Any librarian can take advantage of online sites to show users this unique resource. Even so, deciphering the information for a patron can be a daunting task that can confuse even the most well-intentioned librarian. It is important for public librarians to acquire a working knowledge of online government information and be able to send patrons to the nearest federal depository library when the going gets tough.

It seems to be a common assumption that anything related to the government will be tedious and undecipherable. Many people are unaware of the incredible variety of fascinating government information that is available. Recently a new acquaintance asked me what I do. When I told her that I am a government documents librarian, her response was, “That sounds boring.” By the time I had told her my story of becoming involved with government documents, she was well on her way to changing her mind.

Government information can indeed be intimidating. I remember the first time I walked into the government documents office at Southern Oregon University (SOU). At that time SOU was a nearly 50 percent depository, meaning that we received 50 percent of all government documents produced. That was a lot of paper. There were boxes stacked at the door and piles of documents on the floor. The whole place looked like a clerical nightmare. When I found my desk where I was to begin my service as an information technician, I had no idea where to start. At first it all seemed to be about processing: receiving boxes, opening boxes, checking shipping lists, stamping documents, labeling, cataloging, and so on. We moved these piles around the office, until they finally went out the door to the shelf where it seemed that no one could possibly be interested enough to want to find them. I thought I had entered bureaucratic hell and to some extent I had.

Early in my career, I was fortunate to be working with dedicated long-time government documents librarian, Deborah Hollens. She taught me to see beyond the piles and the processing to the real gold that was at my fingertips, the intricate record of our democratic process in action. Over the years, with the ebb and flow of Republican and Democratic administrations, I watched as the documents changed emphasis reflecting the current trends. I learned that government documents can make your heart beat faster, your fingertips tingle, and your mind zing with certain knowledge that you are experiencing something important and life changing. Government documents are sexy! Who can resist such a thrill?

Working with Hollens, I discovered that the government documents unit, often considered the ugly duckling of the library, is a busy place where you can’t tell if anything is getting done. It always seems to be in process. Yet here we can watch history as it happens. We can track congressional decision-making processes and find information on any number of hot issues of both national and international interest. These are issues that people need to be thinking about if they are to be effective and engaged U.S. citizens.

Engaging Our Youngest Citizens

There is a unique transformation that happens to young people when they begin to understand government information. They gain a real excitement and commitment to who we are as a nation. The way to create that engagement is to show them the beauty of government documents by actively working with them to utilize the information provided. At the university level this can be done through thoughtful reference, specialized instruction, and inclusion of government documents in basic information literacy training for incoming freshmen. However, government information also can be very meaningful to students long before they enter a university.

All public library patrons need to know that government documents are free, abundant, and available in a variety of formats. Government information addresses a wide variety of topics. Public librarians are the first stop for most of our young people. They are the gatekeepers to the deeper world of government information. Many of them maintain relationships with depository librarians at nearby universities. These relationships make it possible for them to direct their patrons to more materials and appropriate expertise.

If your library is a not a designated depository, consider purchasing government documents for your regular library collection. If you do incorporate documents into your collection, use government information to fill out your nonfiction collection. The documents you can choose from will be on varying topics and can be very useful to your patrons. There are quite a few interesting books for children such as Squeaks Discovers Type: How Print Has Expanded Our Universe (2010), GPO’s first original comic book developed to teach children about the history of print, or Coyote and the Turtle’s Dream (2013) in the Eagle Book Series focused on health awareness for middle-school level readers. Others, like Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling—Report to the President (2011) a detailed assessment of what went wrong in the Gulf, might interest older patrons and high school students. At the other end of the spectrum there are also beautifully illustrated books of art celebrating national public places such as A Photographer’s Path: Images of National Parks near the Nation’s Capital (2010) from the National Park Service or the United States Senate Catalogue of Graphic Art (2008). All of these titles are available for sale through the GPO Bookstore.

How do we start to teach a library user about the rich resource of government information without overwhelming them and miring them in musty paper or bad links? Start when they are young. Engage elementary-age students’ critical thinking about their role in our democracy. We don’t normally think of government documents as exciting or physically beautiful, but they can be. We must encourage our youngest citizens to take an interest in these “ugly ducklings” that are vital to their future. Early exposure to online government resources opens a doorway to a lifetime of involvement with the democratic process.

Ben’s Guide is a great place for librarians, teachers, and parents to introduce children to government information. It is an important K-12 teaching tool. The friendly aspects of this site are that it is simple and answers the most asked and hottest questions about the history of our government. It is both colorful and interactive. Best of all, it makes no assumptions about what you already know. You can log on feeling pretty ignorant and come away feeling just smart enough no matter what age you are. The basics are there: the election process, the Congress, an explanation of and links to the full text of the Constitution, as well as other historical documents. The site is divided into age-specific areas and no area has more than a dozen top links. What a relief! Imagine reducing the government down to twelve topics. Why not? As any teacher knows, less is more when it comes to sparking engagement from a learner. Most students soon perceive that information is layered. It won’t be long before curiosity leads to deeper study as long as the student isn’t overwhelmed from the start.

Kids.gov is another useful site that includes learning links, games, and videos for grades K-8. It also includes a grown-ups section that suggests lesson plans and activities and provides worksheets. There is a link for parents as well. The information provided covers a wide range of topics, including art, energy and ecology, government legislation, and inventions. The offerings for older students address both educational and career interests. The site is part of USA.gov and is administered by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).

An excellent way to show your older patrons the availability of government information is to use USA.gov. Explain that this is a targeted search that will take them to federal and state government agency sites. A search for “Wikileaks” in USA.gov brings up information from the Library of Congress, the House of Representatives, the White House, the Navy, and the Air Force, as well as the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security. As students work with government information they will begin to see that there are agency websites that come up again and again. USA.gov searches give you the opportunity to point out the importance of understanding the agency hierarchy in the government. If they need to delve deeper, send them to a librarian who specializes in government information for more clarification.

There’s an App for That

Smart technology users will enjoy using a variety of free government apps to engage children. One that I recommend to pique young people’s interest is the MEanderthal iPhone/iPad app from the Smithsonian. The app is created so that a pair of students working together can take pictures of one another. The photographer then asks the subject to choose one of four early hominids. The subject’s picture transforms before their eyes. At the end the students can read a short description of the early human and then save the picture. This gives children practice with using the camera feature on the iPad while tickling their fancy and engaging them in learning. For older children, the Smithsonian Channel iPhone/iPad app is a great source for fascinating videos on science and social research.

Using the NASA Visualization Explorer app helps students imagine views in outer space and find information on space phenomena and the effects of the earth’s atmosphere. Each topic includes video with musical accompaniment. A NASA climate model shows a simulation of what Hurricane Katrina looked like from above created with both video and stills. Students interested in climate change issues can try out the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Calculator on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mobile site. This can prompt classroom projects for students who would like to gauge their family or school energy usage to address climate change issues in a meaningful way within the context of their own lives.

For older students, the USA.gov apps (available on iPhone/iPad and Android) and Government Accountability Office (GAO) apps (iPhone/iPad) provide a treasure trove of targeted government information, much of it available in full text. Most government apps and mobile sites can be accessed at the USA.gov Mobile Apps Gallery or can be found at specific government agency pages and iTunes. Occasionally the apps may need a reload or update.

Apps and mobile sites are just another tool to use alongside books, paper documents, and agency websites. The apps can be very broad in scope or very narrowly focused, such as the PTSD Coach app that addresses issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Older users may be interested in the PubMed mobile site for peer-reviewed medical information; America’s Economy, a snapshot of current census-derived statistics; FBI.gov Mobile; or the Congressional Record app. In general, the government is moving toward perfecting agency mobile sites rather than apps. These are more robust and have the added benefit of being accessible on both Apple and Android technology.

As children get older we can encourage them to read, watch, and listen to news reports as a means of discovering the relevance of government information in our daily lives. Suddenly one day they discover that government information is in the news and perk up and say: “Look at this!” Put the phrase “government documents” into a search on National Public Radio and you’ll find over one hundred instances of the phrase in news stories ranging from the disappearance of EPA libraries to telecom immunity to wiretapping, to the recent leaks of classified government information from the National Security Administration. This is a great way to show a teenager, perhaps a budding journalist or history buff, how important government documents are to research.

Government information makes young people sit up, listen, and engage in constructive debate. Government information resources are one of the best ways I know to teach students the critical-thinking skills necessary to become information literate and truly engaged as citizens. A good example is the issue of human cloning, once hotly debated in congressional hearings. The recent financial crisis generated many new government documents, as did the natural and manmade disasters of Hurricane Katrina and Deep Water Horizon.

Government information can also be useful when searching for statistical information. The newly revamped American Fact Finder, the census site where the user can create data sets to inform demographic research, is one example. On the other hand, government information can also be stunningly beautiful. The Library of Congress website American Memory comes to mind—a truly magnificent collection of digital objects celebrating American history. This collection includes text, images, sound, and video files.

Preparing Students for the University

All of these resources and more are available at the nearest federal depository library and will continue to be available to youngsters who go on to college careers. High school teachers and school and public librarians who establish liaison relationships with their local campus federal depository librarian can introduce this resource to their students early, before they start college. It is important to encourage history and government teachers to contact the government documents librarian at the local university to set up a time for students to visit and perhaps have a short instruction session. Your state library also serves as a federal documents depository; as an alternative to a local campus or university.

In the first days of freshman year, when students are writing papers with documented arguments, what better place to start than with than the hot issues available in government documents? Although the Congressional Quarterly (CQ) Researcher is not a government document, it is a resource that academic librarians use at the university level. Using the CQ Researcher database, students find topics of interest to get them started with their research. The database draws on the rich resources of government information. CQ Researcher is available online as a proprietary database at many colleges and universities. High school students who take advantage of resources at a local university may also have access to CQ Researcher for their research.

With any current issue that you try to find in CQ Researcher, there is a list of references that include news and journal articles as well as government documents and websites. This is an opportunity to point out the importance of government documents to research skills. For instance, in a CQ Researcher report on cloning, a footnote referring to a transcript of Bush’s remarks available on the White House website includes a dead link that leads to the new White House Briefing Room webpage. This is the caveat of web searching. Will the information still be there when I need it again? Currently the information resides in the White House archives. Here is an immediately teachable moment, an opportunity to point out the value of primary sources, the questionable reliability of the web, and how to track down an elusive source.

It is not the only opportunity afforded by this document. The same report refers to a Congressional Record, Feb. 9, 1998, pp. S513-14. It is a reference to a statement made by Ted Kennedy: “Brownback originally made this comment on Jan. 29, 2003, during a Senate subcommittee hearing. He has subsequently repeated it in a number of different venues.” Here we have mention of both the Congressional Record and a subcommittee hearing complete with dates, another great opportunity to take a moment to check on what the students know about the legislative process, show them tangible primary sources with valuable information, and promote that ugly duckling documents collection. A public user also has access to this information through the closest government documents depository collection. Some, but not all, House and Senate hearings for the 105th Congress (1997-98) forward are available online at the GPO FDSys (Federal Digital Systems) database. The Congressional Record, Volume 140, 1994 forward is available online as well. These online documents are authenticated by the GPO with an eagle emblem.

When students go on to college they are ready for a more sophisticated approach to government information. Often they miss out on the richness of government information simply because faculty members do not necessarily require them to use it. As Judith Downie pointed out, even at the university level, “Faculty, students, and librarians may have some vague ‘idea’ of what government documents are and how they work, but frequently do not understand the real value. There is a discomfort among faculty with requiring the use of resources they don’t fully understand, and discomfort among students in finding resources that have a completely different classification system.”1

Public and secondary school librarians are in a unique position to work together in preparing these students to become informed citizens. Students who are prepared beforehand, who already know the benefits of government information, will be on the lookout for these valuable documents for their research. Government documents librarians routinely promote the collection to faculty in the political science, geography, and history departments. These resources are also excellent for other disciplines, such as education and nursing. Because of the wide range of information produced by the government, librarians should always be on the alert for documents on varying subjects that may help their young patrons.

At the university, government documents that are online pop up in the library catalog whether a user is looking for them or not. Thus, students may find their way to government information with little or no understanding of what it can do for them. How do we inform students about these resources, take away the fear of the unknown, and make government documents part of their research vocabulary? Clearly, we need to be introducing government documents as part of basic information literacy training for all ages, including them as a unique resource alongside books, journal articles, and databases. When students discover that government documents are valuable primary sources, this not only allows them to fulfill the need for primary source research but also helps them understand what constitutes a primary source. When they are taught about government information sources before they arrive at the university, they are much more likely to seek them out for college research.

When introducing government documents to the college freshman, I find it useful to give them printed documents that deal with hot issues they may be working with for a writing assignment. As Deborah Hollens said, in an article in Documents to the People, “Freshmen can and will use government publications, not just by accident, but by intentionally seeking them out, if they are convinced that the material is not intimidating but can be an exciting and important addition to their research.”2 High school students will also respond to this type of information with enthusiasm. Students begin to see the importance of these documents when they are able to handle them or access them online and notice the breadth of what they cover.

Many of the strategies that I use with my students can be applied to public library users. I advise my students to begin with USA.gov to find new keywords for their searches and pinpoint important government agencies. I also show them the GPO FDSys database I mentioned earlier. FDsys allows users to search for specific materials within the database and to choose particular collections through the advanced search feature. FDsys features current documents on the home page and also includes a Quick Links section that points to Ben’s Guide for kids and to the Catalog of Government Publications. It also has a list of featured collections. Each collection shows the years covered.

For information on agencies, Louisiana State University’s Federal Agency Directory clearly illustrates that the government has resources on just about anything that may interest a student. While helping a patron in the public library, ask yourself: “What government agency is likely to have the information or be interested in the issue?” Of course, this is also a good question to ask when looking for information from state, county, and city agencies. On the federal level, the list of agencies is long and not always intuitive so, if you’re not coming up with it right away, it is time to check the agency list. If you have time on a slow day, check it out and play around. You’ll probably discover agencies you didn’t even know existed. Don’t forget that a USA.gov search can also help you find a likely agency. If you’re still hitting a blank wall, call your nearest government documents depository and ask the librarian. The depository library has a mandate to be available for public users so please send your patron there for answers. The librarian may not have the answer right away if it is a complex issue but will be glad to follow-through and research the information.

When students and public users need more information there are many more online resources to show them. One of these is Congressional Research Service Reports from University of Texas. These reports are not government documents but do give useful information related to government issues and are especially good for current topics. They are well written and are not overly long. The Congressional Research Service keeps Congress informed and the average citizen will also find these concise reports useful.

Parent Involvement and Home Schooling

Government information can be very useful for parents who are homeschooling their children. Often, starting them out on Ben’s Guide to U.S. Government for Kids (http://bensguide.gpo.gov) will fulfill most of their needs. Engaged parents enjoy playing with Ben’s Guide and it is an important tool for homeschooling. Many of the historical texts, such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, are at their fingertips online and will enhance their lesson planning. When they have exhausted the resources of Ben’s Guide they might not think to come back to you for more, so be sure to tell them up front that there are more sophisticated resources for their older children. Also don’t hesitate to show them American Memory. This site, hosted by the Library of Congress, is a wonderful collection of historical information that includes primary documents, oral histories, and audiovisual materials. There are links to American Memory from Ben’s Guide so they will eventually find it anyway. However, I like to show off American Memory because the scope of coverage is fascinating and the images always impress a patron who may be thinking that government information is going to be boring at best and confusing at worst.

For parents and teachers, Federal Resources for Educational Excellence (FREE) is an easily navigable site that has many links that will be valuable for students. There is a dropdown menu as well as a site map to choose by subject or it is possible to select a category, such as Primary Docs. Via the Primary Docs page, there are more than a hundred resources that range from presidential papers to the birth of the recording industry. The Our Documents link leads to historical documents, three of which are featured each week and there is also a section called Tools for Educators, which helps teachers and parents with strategies for teaching students about various historical U.S. documents. The U.S. Constitution Workshop links to resources to help promote discussion of the Constitution and its relevance to the history of our government.

Another important parent and kid-friendly site comes from the Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) at the Department of Energy. The search capabilities of this site will entice the interest of your curious young patrons! When you go to the OSTI site, scroll down to the Science Education Resources link. Science Lab is divided up into resources for elementary, middle school, and high school students and teachers. Science Lab has an “Ask an Expert” feature, gives suggestions for science projects and experiments, and a host of other resources to keep children busy. Parents, teachers, librarians, and students can also become members of Science Education.gov and interact with the site by adding tags, rating the information, and sharing thoughts and opinions through the comment feature. This is interactive science at its best.For the more sophisticated patron who is interested in learning about the legislative process, Congressional hearings are excellent resources and teaching tools. When introducing hearings to the students it helps to put them within the context of the legislative process. GPO makes free legislative charts available to government documents librarians who would be happy to pass these resources along. These are invaluable because they outline the process for students in a simple way. Students have difficulty differentiating between what is actual law and what is legislation in process.3

A hearing is a meeting where different viewpoints on an issue are expressed and heard. The hearing is held to help lawmakers understand the issue and make informed decisions. When students understand this, they begin to understand the nature of the resource. The evidence presented at a hearing outlines opposing viewpoints about a hot topic. Often the evidence is printed for the record. For instance, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) may put out a report about the issue at hand that may be included in the hearing. The GAO usually creates reports that synthesize the information in an easily readable way and they also include relevant statistics that could be useful to a student in writing a paper or to a patron who is doing statistical research. Some recent Congressional hearings (1997-98 to present) and GAO reports (1995 to present) are also available online and can be found through The GPO online database, FDsys, using the advanced search.

It is getting more difficult to make the paper documents available since so many government documents are moving to an online only format. Electronic government information does come with some advantages. In the case of hearings that are also available in audio and video through C-SPAN, the online sources address alternate learning styles and enhance the user experience by adding a new dimension to their access. Also student access to smartphones and Wi-Fi connections makes it important to meet them where they are: online. The plus side of the online availability is that these resources pop up in Internet searches. It will be critical in the future for public librarians to be conversant with these online searches so that they can interpret them for the public user. Encourage parents and teachers to take students on a tour of the nearest Federal Depository Library to see the paper items, find out about online resources and talk to a depository librarian. Then students will be able to appreciate the extensive nature of the information available.

Hands-On Help

The GPO has updated many materials that can be used for attractive displays in your library, perhaps linked to special days such as Constitution Day. Your closest government documents depository is a resource for all GPO materials promoting government documents. You can also call on a government documents librarian to give special presentations in your library for general or targeted groups. In 2010, during the New Mexico State University (NMSU) library’s centennial celebration week, I gave a talk at the Thomas Branigan Memorial Public Library in Las Cruces and showed both paper and online resources to a small group of adult patrons. They were truly amazed at what can be accessed both within the library and over the Internet. Many had not previously discovered these government websites in their general Google searches. Just introducing the USA.gov search to patrons can help them more accurately target the government information they need.

Teachers, parents, and librarians may also request support from the local depository librarian for special presentations at the depository itself. During the NMSU library’s 2010 government documents centennial celebration week, I invited elementary and high school social studies teachers to bring in students for a demonstration and scavenger hunt in the government documents stacks. They searched the stacks for some of our more enticing publications from a variety of agencies. These included a document of trivia about the American flag where they learned that the ball at the top of the pole is called a “truck” and that inside the truck are three bullets. They also perused old Congressional hearings from the 1960s on the subject of the mob that contain fold-out photos of mafia family trees. As we looked at online sites, they were amazed to learn that Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) was a private in World War II and spent his time creating cartoon pamphlets warning soldiers about the anopheles mosquito a well as other health hazards of their deployment. I also showed them old vaudeville film clips produced by Thomas Edison, accessible on the American Memory website. When I use multiple media types to demonstrate the usefulness of government information I am able to reach students of varying learning styles. I also usually get them laughing.

Virtual Help

At Southern Oregon University, I have the ability to use a content management system called LibGuides to create a research guide for a specific class, a webpage that targets students’ particular projects. LibGuides allows me to focus on particular resources and gives students a place to go that they can bookmark for everyday use. Students have my contact information and I encourage them to call me to set up an appointment for more help in finding what they need. Many universities are using LibGuides and their sites can be accessed through the library website by off-campus users as well. Most government documents librarians have created a general interest LibGuides site accessible to public users with targeted information about government information resources. My general government information LibGuides page can be accessed at http://libguides.sou.edu/federal. The various LibGuides can usually be accessed through a research link or drop-down list on the university library home page. This provides an opportunity for the savvy public librarian to promote the use of available virtual library instructional materials.


Once young people begin to use government information for their assignments and their teachers make it a habit to require government information resources, they will continue to use them throughout their school career. A red, white, and blue flag should go up for librarians, parents, and students anytime they are required to find statistics, are exploring issues of current concern, or are researching an issue that might be of interest to a government agency. Early on I teach them to think about who would be interested in the type of research they are doing. If they are researching education for instance, the Department of Education may be a resource for them. Public librarians can use these same strategies with their patrons at all levels.

Government documents are a valuable, freely available resource that will entice young people to participate in the democratic process. The public librarian is in a unique position to point young patrons and their parents to this rich array of research tools. When students are introduced to government information at an early age, they learn to expect access to this important information and to appreciate the
myriad resources that the government has to offer. Since the GPO mandate to make government information available online, it is easier for librarians, parents, and teachers to use government information to enhance classroom assignments and daily education. What used to be piles of paper generated by government entities is now a complex array of websites, apps, and databases that may confuse and discourage an untrained searcher. It is more important than ever that school and public librarians make government information resources part of their repertoire. They can expect full support from the closest Federal Depository Library where the librarian acts as an interpreter and promoter of government information in all formats to help patrons discover the graceful swan that lurks behind that ugly duckling!

References and Notes

  1.  Judith A. Downie, “The Current Information Literacy Instruction Environment for Government Documents (Pt. I),” DttP: Documents to the People 32, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 37.
  2. Deborah Hollens, “Documents to the… Freshmen!” Early Exploration of Government Publications.” DttP: Documents to the People 32, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 17.
  3. For an online example of this, visit Ben’s Guide. Under the heading, “How Laws are Made,” parents can help their child with tracking legislation for the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act. Accessed Mar. 21, 2014.

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