The catchall phrase “federal government publication” may not elicit enthusiastic visions of leisure reading. It might bring to mind documents of a practical nature — Senate hearings, House reports, the U.S. Code, Federal Register regulations, environmental impact statements, census records, or even topographic maps. It’s possible the phrase brings nothing to mind at all or maybe just a simple pondering like “what even is a government publication?” Considering that the U.S. Government Publishing Office is often touted as the largest publisher in the world, the number and types of government publications is vast. While scholars, scientists, and members of the legal profession probably have their go-to sources, what is there for the general public?
There is, of course, the practical “How do I …?” information. Whether it be legislative tracking, small business assistance, finding student loans, agricultural research or crime statistics, government websites have a plethora of information. One trick I’ve found to wade through the options is to Google your topic plus the word “libguide.” Chances are you’ll come across an academic library’s research guide related to your area of interest. Librarians love to help people find information, and the LibGuides platform is a popular choice for libraries who want to make their recommendations freely available to the public online.
But what about printed materials? For those readers just seeking entertainment, edification or knowledge about their favorite subjects, the federal government also provides plenty of options. History buffs, art lovers, and NASA enthusiasts may find some of the coffee-table publications a pleasant surprise. Consider the following artistic works, all of which can be found in the library’s online catalog: “In the Line of Duty: Army Art, 1965-2014”; “To Make Beautiful the Capitol”; and “NASA’s Earth as Art or Earth at Night: Our Planet in Brilliant Darkness.” Among my favorites is the photo-filled “Afghanistan: Alone and Unafraid,” which contains striking images of ordinary citizens, including eager-eyed children, interacting with U.S. Marines. Beyond artistic and photographic treasures, the library even has four Goddard Space Flight Center-produced 30-35 piece jigsaw puzzles, featuring satellite images of earth and the moon taken from space.
Government agencies are especially prolific in publishing historical accounts of battles, strategic and political discussions of current events or primary sources and firsthand accounts. Consider “Battleground Iraq: A Journal of a Company Commander”; “Then Came the Fire: Personal Accounts from the Pentagon, 11 September 2001”; or “The End of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: The Impact in Studies and Personal Essays by Service Members and Veterans.” Equally popular are investigations into national scandals such as “Ponzimonium: How Scam Artists are Ripping off America” or “Beyond Convergence: World without Order,” a look at transnational criminal organizations.
Although fewer in number, government publications also include age-appropriate materials for children. The main library can boast of owning “The Only How-To Guide for Crime Prevention Ever Written by a Dog” (OK — it may have been written by someone at Fort Leavenworth’s Provost Marshal Office) while the university’s Gary Strong Curriculum Center also houses government publications for the youngest patrons. Examples include “¿Do?nde esta? Osito?: Un Fanta?stico Cuento para Nin?os de 2 An?os” (available in both English and Spanish), the graphic novel “Squeaks Discovers Type: How Print has Expanded our Universe”; and “An Incredible Journey,” a book for kids detailing the life cycle and conservation efforts of salmon. And don’t forget about the Junior Ranger adventure and activity booklets put out by the National Park Service, many of which can be freely downloaded online.
But what good is knowing about these physical resources if you’re not affiliated with the university? Rest assured, everyone is entitled to access all federal government publications. The University of Idaho Library is part of the Federal Depository Library Program, a national network of libraries with a special congressional designation that are tasked with collecting a physical copy of everything the Government Publishing Office sends us.
While older and rare documents may need to be used in the building, many newer publications can be checked out by anyone with a community borrower card, which is freely available to the general public (including folks from across the border in Washington). Just visit the library’s circulation desk or call (208) 885-6559 for more information or to take advantage of what the federal government has published.
Attebury is the head of technical services and government documents librarian at the University of Idaho.