Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Library of Congress Country Studies

Library of Congress Country Studies – http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/cshome.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What are some distinctive social institutions in Israel?
  • Who is the Commander in Chief of Iran’s armed forces (hint – Not the President)?
  • What do herders and other pastoral nomads in Mongolia do?
  • What are some bloody periods of Columbian history prior to the drug wars?


This is a premier place to go if you are looking for an in-depth overview of a particular country. These Country Studies and a small number of Area Handbooks were produced between 1988 and 1998 by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division under contract to the US Army. They focused on lesser known parts of the world or places the Army anticipated deployments in. There are currently 101 countries and regions available through this series. A few notable countries with profiles are: Afghanistan, Austria, Columbia, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Romania, South Africa, Uganda and Vietnam.

In a few cases, such as Iran (2008) and Columbia (2010), an updated Country Study was made. The Federal Research Division plans to update other countries as funding becomes available. Apparently, one of the effects of a smaller government is having less detailed information on potential troublespots. What could go wrong?

For the most part, writers will find the age of the series less of a handicap as they are usually looking for a basic background, which doesn’t change or setting their stories in an earlier era, which the books can easily accommodate.

Each Country Study is divided into the following chapters: Historical setting, Society and Its Environment, Economy, Government and Politics, National Security. Appendices include political parties and organizations. The Country Studies are heavily footnoted and usually include extensive bibliographies. In the Country Studies I’m the most familiar with (Columbia and Iran), information is provided in a balanced manner. If you’re doubtful of a given Country Study’s objectivity, use the bibliography as an exploration point.

This is a resource that you can quote in your books or draw photos from. As stated in the FAQ section of the website, “With the exception of some photographs, which are clearly marked in the photograph’s caption, text and graphics contained in the online Country Studies are not copyrighted. They are considered to be in the public domain and thus available for free and unrestricted use. As a courtesy, however, we ask that appropriate credit be given to the series. If you or your publisher require specific written permission for the record, queries should be directed via e-mail to frds@loc.gov.”

Search Tips/Story ideas:

Like the Background Notes above, the Country Studies can be mined with Google for specific topics of interest before you have decided on a country to set your story in. Two examples are:

slavery inurl:frd/cstdy
civil war inurl:frd/cstdy

For some reason, Google initially returns a single result, along with the message, “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 1 already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.” Accepting Google’s offer will provide a larger list of different results.

Some Country Studies could be used to design stories set in the near future. For example, the Political Dynamics section of the Columbia Country study documents how party membership turned into armed factional fighting:

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the most consistent features of Colombia’s political system have been the elitism and dualism of party politics. Elites from the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal–PL) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador–PC), which in 1987 changed its name to the Social Conservative Party (Partido Social Conservador–PSC), have dominated the nation’s political institutions. Consequently, the majority of Colombians had little input in the political process and decision making. The formation of the life-long party loyalties and enmities of most Colombians traditionally began at an early age. Campesinos adopted the party affiliations of their master or patron (patrón). Being a Liberal or a Conservative was part of one’s family heritage and everyday existence. During the period of la violencia, party membership was sufficient reason to kill or be killed. Families, communities, and regions have identified with one or the other party. The PL traditionally dominated, the main exception being the period of Conservative hegemony from 1886 to 1930. For most of the twentieth century, the Conservatives have been able to gain power only when the Liberal vote was split.

The Columbia Country Study describes La Violencia this way:

La violencia claimed over 200,000 lives during the next eighteen years, with the bloodiest period occurring between 1948 and 1958. La violencia spread throughout the country, especially in the Andes and the llanos (plains), sparing only the southernmost portion of Nariño and parts of the Caribbean coastal area. An extremely complex phenomenon, la violencia was characterized by both partisan political rivalry and sheer rural banditry. The basic cause of this protracted period of internal disorder, however, was the refusal of successive governments to accede to the people’s demands for socioeconomic change.

If Republicans and Democrats took up arms in this country, what might the result be? Something like La Violencia?


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