Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Appendix A – Finding Experts and “Ask-A” Services

Sometimes you will need more specific answers than the ones available in books or websites. A number of government agencies and government supported libraries offer a question and answer service.

Government Agencies

As of this writing, there was no easily found directory of government experts answering individual questions from the public. I’m providing some examples here so that you can start to get a feel for the types of government and academic experts you might find. On your favorite search engine, searching for (ask-a-[expert field here] or ask-an-[expert field here] will probably be helpful.

Argonne National Laboratory Ask-A-Scientisthttp://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/aasquesv.htm

From the “How to Ask a Question” page:

NEWTON’s Ask A Scientist service is not designed to answer all the questions we receive. Our focus is on specific questions from K-12 students and teachers that are not commonly found in either reference books, libraries or textbooks.

They will answer questions from others, but strongly encourage you to search their archived questions first. The site also implies that it might take awhile to get an answer. Be sure to look at the “How to Ask Questions Section” for more tips on using this service.


California Ask-A-Specialist (Mental Health)http://www.askaspecialist.ca.gov/

This site is more of a lottery, but has good archives. From the website:

Welcome to Diagnostic Center North’s (DCN) “Ask A Specialist” Discussion Forum. DCN is pleased to offer these monthly forums featuring Assistive Technology/Augumentative and Alternative Communication, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Behavior, Mental Health, School Related Medical Issues, Culturally Responsive Assessment, and Secondary Issues where suggestions and advice are provided. Our specialists are known throughout California as experts in their fields.

The specialists will select and respond to one question from those submitted. Responses will be posted on the website monthly.

Diagnostic Center North is run by the California Department of Education.


Defense Department Ask-a-Professor (Logistics) – https://dap.dau.mil/aap/pages/default.aspx

I include this resource mostly to demonstrate the variety of online experts and question archives that are available to you as a writer. But perhaps you will have in depth questions on defense acquisitions and logistics. From the website:

Ask A Professor (AAP) is a Department of Defense resource for asking acquisition and logistics questions concerning policies and practices.


NASA Ask-a-Scientist – http://science.nasa.gov/ask-a-scientist/

This is a mini-directory of “Ask-A” services put together by NASA staff which includes a mix of government and non-government sources:

  • Ask an Astrobiologist
  • Ask an Astronomer
  • Ask an Astrophysicist
  • Ask an Engineer
  • Ask a Geologist
  • Ask a Lunar Scientist
  • Ask a Physicist
  • Ask Dr. SOHO
  • Ask a Space Scientist
  • Volcano World FAQ

Pretty much all of the sites have a FAQ they’d like you to look over first. Time to reply varies, partly because many of these scientists and engineers are answering questions in their spare time or off work hours.


Oregon State University (OSU) Cooperative Extension (agriculture, gardening, food preservation, etc)  Ask an Expert – http://extension.oregonstate.edu/extension-ask-an-expert)

From the website,

Ask an Expert is a way for you to get answers from the Oregon State University Extension Service. We have experts in family and health, community development, food and agriculture, coastal issues, forestry, programs for young people, and gardening.

OSU promises to get back to you within two business days.

They have an archive that can be searched or browsed by topic.


USGS Ask-a-Geologist – http://walrus.wr.usgs.gov/ask-a-geologist/

This site differs from other Q&A sites in that there seems to be no archive of answers. There is a link to a USGS library FAQ, but these are clearly not “ask-a-geologist” type answers. They say someone should get back to you “in a few days.” According to the website, they will not answer questions that “specific locations, or with direct financial impacts, and we can’t recommend products or companies.”


Along with the web-based answer sites above, it’s important to remember that we can still pick up the phone in this internet age. A good approach if you’re seeking immediate answers during business hours.

Health Info Lines from National Institutes of Health – http://www.nih.gov/health/infoline.htm

List of phone numbers arranged by health condition from AIDS to bowel control to kidney disease to women’s health.


U.S. Government Telephone and E-mail Directories – https://www.usa.gov/Contact

This USA.gov page links to the following resources:

  • Call 1 (800) FED INFO (1-800-333-4636) for any Question about Government
  • Elected Officials – Governors, President, Representatives, Senators, State Legislatures
  • State and Territorial Contact Directory
  • Congressional Directory
  • Contact Links Organized by Topic
  • Contact Links Organized by Agency
  • Congressional Pictorial Directory
  • Military Personnel Locators
  • Americans Abroad – Assistance During a Crisis

The “Americans Abroad” link will be good for stories set overseas and having scenes set at an American embassy or consulate.


Ask a Librarian at the Library of Congresshttp://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/

This page links to question forms for the Library of Congress’ various reading rooms and special format collections. Each room’s staff will provide a response within five business days. They have differing policies on the level of research provided to a user.


Chat Reference Libraries (includes e-mail servicehttp://liswiki.org/wiki/Chat_reference_libraries

This is a global listing of libraries offering some sort of web-based reference service from Australia to Sweden, the US and beyond. The best part about this for you as a writer is that some library on this list is going to be open when your local library is closed. Additionally, if you story is set in different country, a library in that country may be able to steer you to more localized information.

Keep in mind that just because a library is open, it does not mean your question will be answered immediately.


Government Information Online – http://govtinfo.org/

If you need a deep dive into government information or the chance to interact in real time with a librarian on government information issues, this may be the site for you. From the website:

What is GIO: Ask a Librarian?
Through Government Information Online (GIO) you can ask government information librarians who are experts at finding information from government agencies of all levels (local, state, regional, national international) on almost any subject from aardvarks to zygomycosis

GIO is a free online information service supported by nearly twenty public, state and academic libraries throughout the United States. All participants are designated Federal depository libraries in the U.S. Government Printing Office’s Federal Depository Library Program. Many are also official depository libraries for their other types of governments and public agencies.

The chat service is open Monday through Friday. See the website for current hours. You may e-mail questions when the chat service is closed and GIO promises an answer within 48 hours.

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