The "Agency Approach" To Locating Government Information on the Internet

a tutorial created by:
Chuck Malone, Government Information Librarian
Western Illinois University Library

This tutorial is sponsored by the Continuing Education Fund Working Group of the Education Committee of the American Library Association's Government Documents Round Table.


Contents of the Tutorial



Need to Find Government Information on the Internet?

Try the Agency Approach!

A library patron once told me that she used an Internet search engine to search the Internet for information on filing a sex discrimination complaint against her employer because of ongoing harassment -- and the search engine gave her 5,066 hits. After looking through the first dozen or so and not finding the information she was looking for, she became frustrated and quit.

In contrast, many government document librarians would take a different approach to searching for this information. They would ask themselves, "Which government department, office, or agency would deal with a question such as sex discrimination?"

Most government document librarians work at libraries that are part of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). The FDLP is administered by the United States Government Printing Office (GPO). Traditionally, as GPO prints publications and documents for the various federal agencies, they will print extra copies to be distributed to libraries participating in the FDLP. The FDLP libraries usually organize these government publications by the agencies that issued them. As a result, government document librarians have found that identifying the agency that deals with the information they are looking for is a good technique to use in locating government information.

However, government information is increasingly becoming available on the Internet. One does not always have to go to a Federal Depository Library. In a sense, we can all now become government document librarians by using the Internet to find the government information we are looking for.


But with the Internet so huge -- where do we start? Well, the same technique that government document librarians have used for organizing and finding government print material -- that is organizing information by the agency that issued that information -- also works in searching for government information on the Internet.



Thus, the purpose of this tutorial is to demonstrate a Three-Step "Agency Approach" to finding government information on the Internet.

1. Identify which government agency deals with the type of information you are looking for.

2. Go to that agency's Web home page.

3. Mine that agency's Web pages for information you are looking for.



(Please note: Internet "hotlinks" in this guide are underlined in blue. But be prepared to do some extra investigating or "mining" as Internet sites do change over time)

How Do I Know Which Agency?


One can determine which agency to look to for specific government information through a variety of ways. The United States Government Manual is one publication that is readily available in print at most libraries. This source is also accessible on the Internet at http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/nara001.htm.




The United States Government Manual briefly describes the roles of most federal government departments and agencies. Furthermore, it will usually give the Internet address of a Department or Agency's Web page.





And if you think about it, you probably know the names of many government agencies and have an idea of what they do just from listening to the radio, watching TV, or reading the newspaper. The names of government agencies are present everywhere if we happen to notice them. Just spending a few extra moments a day to mentally note the names of government agencies mentioned in the news and elsewhere can pay big dividends when it comes to identifying which government agency does what.

What's in a name?

The names of many agencies describe what a particular agency does. For example, the Dept. of Agriculture deals with matters of agriculture; The Dept. of Transportation deals with matters of transportation, etc.


Another source that can be helpful in identifying which agency deals with which subject matter is a book many of us are familiar with -- The Statistical Abstract of the United States. At the bottom of each table presented in Statistical Abstract there will be a reference to the government agency which produced that information. The Statistical Abstract is also available on the Internet or in CD-ROM form. The CD-ROM version can actually be used in conjunction with the Internet as its tables often contain Web links to the Agency that produced that particular table.



Once I Have Identified a Government Agency -- How Do I Find Their Internet Address?


Federal government agency Internet addresses will usually end in .gov (except for military sites -- which will end in .mil). Many federal government Internet sites also will contain the initials of an agency -- followed by .gov. For example, the address of the U.S. Dept. of Interior is http://www.doi.gov. The Internet address of the Federal Trade Commission is http://www.ftc.gov.

There are a couple of good Internet directories of government agencies that can help you find the Web address of an agency. These are:

Federal Agency Internet Sites by the Government Printing Office and LSU Libraries of Louisiana State University.
Federal Web Locator by Villanova University's Center for Information Law and Policy.

You can also use these directories to browse agency home pages and find out what various agencies do. And finally, as mentioned earlier, The United States Government Manual also lists the Internet addresses of most federal government departments and agencies.


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How Do I "Mine" an Agency's Web Pages Once I Get There?

This can involve:

How Does This Agency Approach Work With Real Questions?

Examples of how the "Agency Approach" to finding government information on the Internet actually works are given below. These were taken from actual reference questions that were received at a library reference desk. The questions were then answered by figuring out which federal agency would deal with the subject matter of the question -- going to that agency's Web home page -- and then mining the agency's Web pages to find the information the patron was looking for.


Some Sample Reference Questions!

Question #1. How do I find out about sex discrimination laws and how to file a sexual harassment complaint against my employer?


Step #1. Identify the Agency that would deal with the type of information you are looking for.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces laws which prohibit various types of discrimination, including sex discrimination and sexual harassment. The EEOC also conducts investigations of alleged discrimination. How would one know this? A few years ago the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court appointment hearing / Anita Hill testimony brought the EEOC into national attention. Or you might have remembered various news stories about sex discrimination in the workplace that featured the role of the EEOC.





Or if you were not familiar with the work of the EEOC from stories in the media, you might have noticed a poster around your workplace with EEOC information.







Or you could have used the U.S. Government Manual to come up with the EEOC. From the subject/agency index in the back of the book, the subject heading "discrimination" sends one to the subject heading of "civil rights." And one of the page links after "civil rights" leads one to the entry of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.



Or using the online version of the United States Government Manual you encounter a search box into which you could have typed in the word "discrimination" or "sex discrimination" and come up with the EEOC.


Step #2. Go to that agency's Internet home page.

In this case we CAN find the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's home page by trying an Internet address that contains EEOC followed by .gov. (http://www.eeoc.gov).

You also could have obtained the EEOC's Web address from the U.S. Government Manual or the Federal Agency Internet Sites and Federal Web Locator Internet directories that were mentioned above.

Step #3. Mine that agency's Web pages for the information you are looking for.

It is usually a good idea to look for links to the information you are looking for as soon as you get to an agency's home page. Notice that the EEOC's opening Web page contains links to Employment Discrimination and Filing a Charge. The "Employment Discrimination" link leads one to a further link of "Sexual Harassment" which contains a discussion of what defines sexual harassment. Links are also available to the text of the Civil Rights Act, the area of discrimination law that covers sexual harassment.



Question #2. I need statistics on honey production for each state in the U.S.

Step #1. Identify the Agency.

Since honey is an agricultural product, we can start by assuming that the United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) would keep statistics on honey production. Also, going to the online version of the United States Government Manual and typing in honey at the search line would lead you to USDA.

Step #2. Go to that agency's Web site.

In this case, the initials of the agency followed by .gov again will get us to the home page we want. http://www.usda.gov.

Of course, we could have also gone to one of the Internet directories of government information mentioned above to find USDA's Internet address. And the entries for USDA in either the print or online versions of the United States Government Manual would lead you to USDA's Internet address.

Step #3 Mine the agency's Web pages.

With a large agency such as USDA, I like to continue with the Agency Approach a step further, and identify which agency within an agency deals with the question we are looking for.

So in this case, at USDA's home page, I will choose "Agencies" in order to find a list of sub-agencies or offices of USDA.


The Dept. of Agriculture deals with a multitude of subjects -- from managing our National Forests, to overseeing the Food Stamp Program, to operating commodity programs to help our nation's farmers. When going to the home page of a large department such as USDA for a statistical question such as honey production, it is usually worthwhile to see if they have a special office that deals with statistics.
So what I am looking for is an agency or office within USDA that might deal with "statistics."

After clicking on "Agencies" from USDA's home page, you will be taken to a listing of the agencies within USDA. One of those agencies is the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). By clicking on their name and going to the NASS site, we are given several choices, one of which is SEARCH.

At this point, we can choose SEARCH by clicking on it and be taken to a search menu box that will search all of the National Agricultural Statistics Service pages. In the search box, we can type in the word honey to search for statistics on honey.

At this point you may be asking, "Why didn't we just do a search at the initial USDA page?"

That is because if we did a search from the main USDA home page, we be searching all of USDA and we may receive hundreds of unrelated hits that didn't relate to the information we were looking for. That approach is certainly the one to take if we can't identify a sub-agency that deals with the information we want. And in most instances it will work quite well -- after all, searching all of USDA is certainly better than searching all of the Internet. But by going to the sub-agency, the National Agricultural Statistics Service first, we can search "honey" only on their pages.

From our search of "honey" on the National Agricultural Statistics Service pages, we received only several hits, one of which was:

Honey [NASS]
A product of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Agricultural Statistics Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture

This file contains the annual report of the number of colonies producing honey, yield per colony, honey production, average price, price by color class and value; honey stocks by state and U.S.


This hit contains reports for each of the last 5 years that list not only U.S. national honey production statistics, but figures for each state as well.





Question #3: I want to know the number of lives air bags have saved -- and the deaths they have caused.

Step #1. Identify the agency.

For a "transportation" question such as this one might guess that the
United States Department of Transportation would be a good agency to try for this type of information. Or by typing in "air bags" at the search line of the online United States Government Manual we could have also been led to the United States Department of Transportation.

Step #2. Go to the agency's Internet home page.

Again the Internet address to this agency consists of the initials of the agency followed by .gov (http://www.dot.gov) takes us to the agency we want -- United States Department of Transportation. Or we could have gone to the United States Government Manual to find the address.

Step #3. Mine the agency's Web pages.

Once at the United States Dept. of Transportation Internet site, we can again use our "agency" approach to look for agencies within DOT which might have statistics on air bags. Right away we notice that there is a Bureau of Transportation Statistics or BTS, listed along with many other DOT sub-agencies. We find that the BTS site includes a search option

The search option of BTS actually takes us to a National Transportation Library page called DOTBOT which allows one to search all of the Web pages of the various Transportation Department Offices -- or to pick a particular Office to Search.

It's usually a good idea if possible to narrow one's search to the agency within an agency that would deal with our topic. In this case, by looking at the choice of agencies, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) would be a good choice for an office that would deal with a safety questions such as air bags. By changing the DOTBOT dropdown menu to limit our search to the NHSTA -- and typing in a search of "air bag statistics" we can search only NHSTA Web pages for the topic of air bag statistics.

The results of this search include a number of hits, one of which is Safety Fact Sheet 9/1/98 Crash Statistics. This Fact Sheet gives us all kinds of statistics on the use of air bags and their benefits -- including lives saved and deaths they have caused.

Be aware that changing a search term only slightly in most databases can alter the results considerably. A search of "air bags" instead of "air bag statistics" in the above search will find the Safety Fact Sheet 9/1/98 Crash Statistics that has the information we were looking for. But that hit doesn't show up until the 3rd or 4th screen of hits. Furthermore, who is to say that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration won't continue to add pages about "air bag statistics" and thus make our "Fact Sheet" show up later in the hits we receive for the same search at a later date.

For this question, another approach would have been to choose the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration option right from the Dept. of Transportation's home page. Once at the NHTSA home page there is a listing of a menu of popular topics along the left side of the page -- one of which is "air bags." By clicking on air bags we are taken to another menu of all kinds of choices about air bags. One of the choices is Fact Sheets which has a sub-heading of Statistical Information that takes us to a fact sheet just like we found going the BTS/DOTBOT route. That's the fun thing about the Internet -- there are often several routes to the same destination.





Question #4: I am looking for a government report issued in 1997 or 1998 on the role of fathers in K-12 education..



Step #1. Identify the agency.

As in our previous questions, our first step is to decide which agency would deal with education issues. Most of us would agree that the U.S. Dept. of Education would be a logical choice.


Step #2. Go to the agency's Internet home page.

From the previous methods mentioned (trying the letters of the agency's initials -- or going to the United States Government Manual we would find that their Web address is http://www.ed.gov.

Step #3. Mine the agency's Web pages.

In searching for "reports" I often like to see if there is a link to "publications" from the Agency's home page. At the Dept. of Ed. home page we do find a link to Publications & Products.

At the "Publications & Products link" we see that our first choice is:

ED Pubs On-Line Ordering System -- to identify and order current U.S. Department of Education publications and products.


Once at ED Pubs, we are given a search menu in which we can type in the word fathers. From that search of "fathers" we received three hits -- the third of which was the publication we were looking for:

_______
Title / Education ID / Abstract / Publication Date

3
Fathers' Involvement in Their Children's Schools NCES 98-091 Provides a broad overview of the extent to which resident (excluding foster) and nonresident fathers are involved in their children's schools and examines the influence that their involvement has on how the children are doing in school. This report includes information on school involvement obtained from the parents of 16,910 children in grades K-12 as part of the National Household Education Survey. 10/01/1997




By clicking on the title of this report, one is taken to online edition links and/or ordering information for paper copies.









Help Is Available -- At Your Local Depository Library!


This "Agency Approach" should help you find the government information you need. But should you encounter difficulties -- don't fear. Help is available at a Federal Depository Library near you. There are nearly 1400 Depository Libraries across the Country which will be glad to help you in your search for government information on the Internet. Depository libraries also have government publications in print, microfiche, and CD-ROM format in their collections.



To find out more about Depository Libraries --
or to find the name of a Depository Library near you, go to:
http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/libpro.html
or click on


Bibliography of Print Materials Cited in This Tutorial

U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, et al. Statistical Abstract of the United States Washington, D.C. (annual) For sale by the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Nord, Christine Winquist. Fathers' Involvement in Their Children's Schools: National Household Education Survey. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center For Education Statistics. Washington D.C., 1997. Available for free from the U.S. Dept. of Education or for sale by the U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Archives and Records Administration, Office of the Federal Register. United States Government Manual Washington, D.C. (annual). For sale by the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Print editions of the above publications can be ordered online from the U.S. Government Printing Office's Online Bookstore. Additionally, many Depository Libraries will also have them available for viewing. Or you can use the hotlinks in this tutorial to go to the online editions.

A Word About "SuDocs" Numbers

If you do visit a Federal Depository Library, chances are that you will not find their government information organized by the Dewey Decimal classification system -- or the Library of Congress classification system. Instead, you may encounter the "SuDocs" classification system. SuDocs is named from the Superintendent of Documents -- the person and office who heads the Federal Depository Library Program portion of GPO.

The SuDocs system classifies government publications by the agencies (and offices within an agency) who issue a particular publication. A SuDocs number begins with one or two letters which stand for the issuing agency. For example, publications issued by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture begin with the letter "A" -- those issued by the Dept. of Defense begin with the letter "D" -- those issued from the Dept. of Interior begin with the letter "I" etc.

After the letter(s), a SuDocs number will then contain arbitrary numbers which represent offices or sub-agencies within the main agency. For example, publications from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Forest Service will be classified and shelved with a stem that starts out A 13. Publications issued by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will begin with a stem of A 101. Publications issued by the Dept. of Interior's Geological Survey will begin with a stem of I 19. Publications issued by the Dept. of Interior's National Park Service will begin with a stem of I 29.

As you can see, government documents librarians have already had experience in using material organized by the federal agencies and sub-agencies who issue a particular piece of information. And as I hoped you have learned from this tutorial -- the "Agency" approach can also be a useful method in finding government information on the Internet.

Comments? and Thank you!


Along with the Continuing Education Fund Working Group, of ALA GODORT's Education Committee, I would like to thank you for taking the time to go through this tutorial.

I hope that you have benefited from this demonstration of the Agency Approach to locating government information on the Internet. If you have any comments or questions about this tutorial -- or this approach to finding government information, please contact me at:
Chuck_Malone@ccmail.wiu.edu



Home Pages of Sponsors and Supporters of This Tutorial

(ALA) American Library Association

ALA Government Documents Round Table (GODORT)

ALA GODORT Education Committee

Continuing Education Fund Working Group of ALA GODORT's Education Committee

Western Illinois University

Western Illinois University Library

Western Illinois University Library's Government and Legal Information Unit




And Finally ... Some Agency Home Pages to Practice With

So that you can browse some federal agency home pages, I have placed links to a few federal agencies below. Browsing through the various agencies will give you a good idea of the types of government information that are available on the Internet.

Federal Agencies

  Links to official Internet sites of federal departments and agencies:


  Departments

  Popular Federal Agencies
  Independent & Quasi-Official Agencies

  Didn't find the agency you were looking for here?

Try Federal Agency Internet Sites.

(This site last updated 11/8/99)