Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Appendix E – Locating Print Copies

While we do live in an age of instant gratification via the internet, there are times when people will want printed copies of a given work.  Maybe you’ve got a slow internet connection, perhaps you work best with post-its in your research sources. Perhaps, like the Handbook of the North American Indians, no digital copy is available.

The purpose of this appendix is to offer some ideas for obtaining print materials.  Because I am a librarian, I lean towards borrowing things for free. But I do offer some purchase options for those of you who either desire a long term reference or who wish to be practitioners of marginalia.

For Federal Documents

Federal Depository Libraries (FDLs) 

Many, but not all US federal government documents are available through the nation’s network of over 1,200 Federal Depository Libraries. There is at least one in every Congressional district, so if you live in the lower 48 States, chances are good you are in driving distance of a depository library.  The program has a directory of depository libraries to help you find the one closest to you.

Aside from collections of government documents, Federal Depository Libraries have librarians well versed in government information in all formats and are better positioned to help you navigate government information than most librarians.

If you don’t live near a Federal Depository Library, try the “WorldCat plus Interlibrary Loan” option below. You should also still be able to get references from a FDL by e-mail or phone.  You can also get answers by live chat by using the Government Information Online service. While not 24/7, they do have pretty good hours.


GPO Bookstore – http://bookstore.gpo.gov/

Think of the GPO Bookstore as an Amazon for in-print government documents. The bookstore is both searchable and browseable. Items may be searched by keyword, title, agency, or GPO stock number. Browse options include agency, topic, new releases, best sellers and format (i.e. print vs electronic).

If you need ongoing information in a given area, consider signing up to the Bookstore’s alert service. There are dozens of topics, agencies and other specialized lists to choose from.

While current government documents can be ordered elsewhere, you receive free shipping on orders placed with the GPO Bookstore. Even for international orders.

If ownership isn’t important to you, be sure to check the Catalog of Government Publications BEFORE you hit the GPO Bookstore as the bookstore doesn’t tell you if something is free for borrowing from a Federal Depository Library. But if owning the publication is important to you, I think you’ll find the GPO Bookstore a good value for your money.

While not directly in scope for this work, I wanted to point out the Government Printing Office’s  Government Book Talk blog. It does a great job of spotlighting the variety of publications available from the US Federal Government and often gives you a nice bit of information on a given topic along the way.  I really like that Government Book Talk will indicate when a given item can be found in a Federal Depository Library in addition to being available for purchase in the GPO Bookstore.

For State Documents

State Depository Library Programs

Most, but not all US States have a depository library program to ensure that publications produced by state agencies remain available to the public at no cost.

The State and Local Documents Task Force of the Government Documents Roundtable (GODORT) of the American Library Association has assembled a list of known state depository programs.

In hopes of providing instant gratification to a sizable number of writers, re are links to depository programs of the five most populous US States.  See the GODORT list above for the other programs.

For All Government Documents

WorldCat Plus Interlibrary Loan

WorldCat is probably the closest thing we currently have to a global library catalog. It has items in all formats. Simply copy and paste the title from any digitized object you find and WorldCat will tell you what items hold a printed copy.  If you’re lucky, one of these libraries will be in driving distance. If you give WorldCat your zip code, it will offer holding libraries starting with ones nearest to you.

If the item you are looking for is not at your local library, your next step is to …

Visit your local public library. Yep. Don’t contact the holding library. Unless they are part of the same system your library is, they will not loan the book directly to you. But they will USUALLY lend the item to your local library which in turn will loan it to you. This is called Interlibrary Loan (ILL) and is part of what makes virtually every US library a portal to the universe.

You don’t know where your local public library is? Look it up (US) with a zip code or city.   Or put [your city here] public library into your favorite search engine. If you already have a library card, some libraries allow you place Interlibrary Loan requests by e-mail or web forms. But get a library card before you place an ILL. You’ll need the library card to pick up the book.


Issuing Agency

Contacting the issuing agency for any level of government document is always an option but very hit and miss. It is also usually only an option for in-print documents and depends on the agency still operating. But if an agency still has copies of a report or map on hand, you’ll be able to get one. Depending on the particular agency they may give you the document or sell it to you at a price designed to recover the cost of printing. 

Contact information for the agency may be found in the electronic version of the document you are seeking in print or try the name of the agency plus the name of its jurisdiction (i.e Alaska department education) into your favorite search engine.

In some cases, especially for federal and state documents, the issuing agency may refer you to a depository library. In other cases, the document was never printed to begin with and your only option is your home printer. A number of agencies at all levels of government have shifted to electronic documents to save on printing costs. However, those costs are merely shifted to those people and institutions that prefer printed products for preservation and/or authenticity (i.e no 1984 style of document changes or deletions). There is no free lunch. Only the person stuck with the check changes.



Yes, I know you could have come up with this option on your own, but this allows me to point out that even out-of-print titles are available through this resource. If you are looking to buy a current US federal government document and don’t have Amazon Prime, you ought to consider buying from the GPO Bookstore instead as they offer free shipping every day.


Alibris – http://www.alibris.com/books/rare-collectible?cm_sp=navShop-_-rare-collectible-_-na 

Alibris started out life as an out-of-print bookseller but has since expanded into in-print content. Here I’ve steered you to their rare and out of print book page as they’re still considered a great resource for the hard to find.


eBay – http://www.ebay.com

I include this site because I’ve seen some government documents posted there, but I’d consider this a last resort. If you’ve had positive experience buying out of print materials on ebay, please leave a comment.

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