Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Appendix C – Finding Specific Information on US States


Throughout this book I’ve included some links to state-specific information. Truth is, aside from space travel, there is potentially information from a given state on almost any topic. Take for example, occupational information. In Fictional Work and Home Life I showed you how to find the average salaries for a given job by consulting the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Most states keep occupational information specific to their state. Alaska, for instance, has a resource called “Alaska Occupations” at http://live.laborstats.alaska.gov/occ/alloccs.cfm that lets you browse occupations by title, wage and employment outlook. Clicking on an occupation takes you to more data, including demographics. For instance, 68.5% of librarians in Alaska, myself included are over 45 years old and more than half of us are over 50 years old. Information like this makes “Alaska Occupations” a decent place to start building a character once you’ve given him or her an occupation.

Another example of state specific information is of course, law. While there are organizations such as the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) try to build model legislation for states to adopt, there are still 50 separate sets of state law. If your story depends on a particular legal situation, it will be more believable if you have the right set of statutes. Or set your story in the near future when no one can know what laws will be in effect. But if you’re in the present or past, have the right laws for the right state.

Below are some suggestions for finding state specific information when you need it.


State Government Information Index by Kathy Amen, St. Mary’s University – http://lib.stmarytx.edu/stategovs

If you’re not positive what you want to know about a given state, Kathy’s page is a good place to start. From the website,

This guide offers basic information about each state (taken from the World Almanac and the Census Bureau) and links to pages developed by libraries and other organizations with detailed access to state government web sites. Some specialized types of pages (e.g., “Legal Resources”) are so indicated.

Note that some of the resources listed on these libraries’ pages might not be freely available to users outside of the institutions.


State Agency Databases Across the Fifty States –  http://godort.libguides.com/statedatabases

This is a librarian led effort to discover and annotate publicly searchable databases produced by state agencies. The main site is a listing by state, then by agency. It is part of the larger American Library Association Government Documents Roundtable Wiki, which offers a search of the entire wiki which will bring up state database results.

The following “Databases by Subject” are available:

  • Healthcare practitioners databases – A number of states maintain online directories of doctors and other health care professionals. Some contain disciplinary actions.
  • History
    • Biographical Databases – Databases that provide biographical sketches of authors, state officials, famous state residents, etc.
    • Historical Media Databases – Databases that provide online access to photographs, video, or audio.
    • Historical Newspaper and Magazine Indexes – Databases that index articles in older newspapers, journals and magazine that contain historical information. These databases will usually lead one to microfilmed items that may be obtainable through Interlibrary Loan.
    • Museum Collection Databases – Catalogs of state museum holdings which often have historical notes. Museums listed here are either run by a state or by one of the state’s political subdivisions
    • Official Records Databases – vital records, (birth, death, etc), war pensions, etc.
  • Prisoner Locater Tools – Find prisoners for a number of states, some information on released inmates available in some states.

Disclosure – I’m the coordinator for this project.


State Depository Programs – http://wikis.ala.org/godort/index.php/State_Depository_Library_Systems

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.


(population, population density, ethnic makeup, commuting times and more)

American Factfinder – https://factfinder.census.gov/

If you want to immediately dive into numbers, type the geography you’re looking for (state, town or zip code) into the left hand search box and click on “Go.” You’ll be presented with a box that lists the latest census population and some links to tables.

You can use the “topics” menu on the left hand side of the page to narrow down to the information are looking for. Bear in mind that the exact thing you are looking for may be buried in a table. For instance, the percentage of people who carpooled in Calfornia in  (11.5 %) is listed about about a quarter of the way down the table “SELECTED ECONOMIC CHARACTERISTICS  more information – 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates”

Once you locate a table that makes you happy, you can create a bookmark in your browser. You can also print or download tables.

If the site seems a little intimidating at the first, click on “help” in the right hand corner or visit https://factfinder.census.gov/help/en/index.htm#


Census State Data Center Network – https://www.census.gov/about/partners/sdc.html

If you’re looking to dive deep into state or community information, you should try the State Data Center Network. It’s a listing of agencies in each state that have committed to providing assistance with census data. Click on a state to find websites and local contacts.


State Information from the Census Bureau –http://www.census.gov/main/www/a2z/S

– The URL is actually to the “S” page of the “A-Z” index of Census information. When you click on that page, scroll down until you see “State.” It will have the following subsections:

  • Area Profiles – State and County Demographic and Economic Profiles
  • Finances – see Government Data & Information
  • Government – see Government Data & Information
  • School District Review Program (SDRP)
  • State and County Demographic and Economic Profiles
  • State and Local Area Data Book
  • State and Local Employee-Public Retirement Systems
  • Taxes – Federal, State & Local Government

Sadly, the State and Metropolitan (Local) Area Data book was discontinued in 2011, another victim of budget cuts along with the very useful “Statistical Abstract of the United States.”

This is what smaller government looks like. If you’re not worried about this because there are almanacs and “all these stats are on the web”, you should realize that many of the figures published in almanacs and statistical websites came from publications like the Statistical Abstract and the State and Metropolitan Area Data Book. As federal government documents, they were in the public domain and could be freely copied. Now publishers of almanacs and statistical websites will need to spend more time, money and effort to acquire these kinds of data and it may no longer be public domain.


Generally speaking, there are two kinds of rules that we refer to as “The Law” – Statutes, which are written by legislatures and Regulations, which are written by executive branch agencies with the stated intention of carrying tasks assigned by statute.

Basic access to statutes and legislation

State Legislatures, State Laws, and State Regulations: Website Links and Telephone Numbers

Rick McKinney of the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D.C. This page is a 50-state listing of all the contact information you need to locate laws and regulations for a given state. If you can’t find what you are looking for on a state’s website, call one of the provided phone numbers and someone ought be able to help you.

Subject Specific

Research from the National Council of State Legislatures – http://www.ncsl.org/research/

It is a common request in state legislatures across the country to ask what other state legislatures have done on a specific topic. In response to this, NCSL has developed a number of reports on bills and legislation by subject. Use the right hand menu to browse these areas:

  • Agriculture and Rural Development
  • Civil/Criminal Justice
  • Education
  • Elections and Campaigns
  • Energy
  • Environment and Natural Resources
  • Ethics
  • Financial Services and Commerce
  • Fiscal Policy
  • Health
  • Human Services
  • Immigration
  • International
  • Labor and Employment
  • Military and Veterans Affairs
  • Redistricting
  • State-Tribal Institute
  • Telecommunications and Information Technology
  • Transportation

It might generate story ideas just to cruise what’s available for awhile. If you’re looking for background information to go along with the charts and legislative summaries, click on the Issues and Research tab. Most of the information is available to the general public.


In the Flora and Fauna chapter, I covered a few state specific resources that can help you get in-depth information about what does and doesn’t belong in a given state. To find similar resources in other US states, I suggest taking one of three approaches:

  1. Go to usa.gov and search for [plants your-state-here]
  2. Visit your state’s home page (usually either http://www.yourstatespelledout.gov, http://www.yourstatepostalabbreviation.gov or http://www.state.yourstatepostalabbreviation.us and use the search box that is usually in the upper left hand corner to search for “plants” or “native plants.”
  3. Visit your state’s home page, chose the agency/government browse and look for departments of agriculture, natural resources, conservation or other nature sounding words. Then look over the department’s home page for links for plant resources.

The search approaches above will also help you look for resources about animals in a given state if you search/browse for wildlife or “fish and game.”


State DOT siteshttp://www.fhwa.dot.gov/webstate.cfm

This links to the state transportation agency for each of the fifty states. Here is where you can get detailed information roads, traffic conditions, traffic cameras, the condition of public transportation and more.


There’s always the brute force approach. Almost all top level state web sites have search engines and topic browses. All top level state websites can be accessed at either http://www.[full state name].gov or http://www.state.[postal abbreviation].us. In Alaska, our main page is advertised as http://www.alaska.gov. As of this writing, http://www.state.ak.us will take you the main page as well.

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