Still Just a Bill: US Congressional documents and why you might use them

by Sarah Elichko

today i am still just a bill

In the spirit of the election, I’d like to talk about a topic some librarians fear: government documents.

Between the labyrinthine structure of agencies and committees to the prospect of navigating a different call number system (Superintendent of Documents or SuDoc), this huge category of resources can be intimidating to approach. Yet if you’re ever looking for statistics, maps, arguments for or against a policy (e.g. welfare reform), high-quality research, or information about a proposed law, government documents are a great place to start. And don’t forget: most US, EU, UN, and other government documents are available for free.

Now, I’m a bit of a government documents geek and I don’t expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for the EPA’s environmental justice mapping tools and compiling legislative histories. But I think that almost any librarian will find some basic knowledge of government information useful in their daily work. Previously on Chasing Reference, Amy highlighted the amazing resource of the recently released 1940 US Census. Today, I’m going to focus on US Congressional Hearings, which which can give you and your patrons a window into the workings of Congress and the process by which laws are made.

We’ll look at three questions: what do Congressional hearings tell you? How can you find them? What about finding older and unpublished hearings?

What do Congressional hearings tell you?
Committee Hearings give you a window into the discussion of a bill that’s been proposed. You can learn who the major players on the issue are and how they explain their side of the issue. Some of these major players are lobbyists, representatives of relevant professional and trade organizations (e.g. AMA), interest groups (e.g. AARP), members of the public (usually prominent ones), researchers, other members of Congress, and staff from government agencies (e.g. EPA, Department of Defense). In addition to identifying the major players and their basic arguments, you can get a sense for how the issue is framed by each individual who testifies. What evidence do they offer? Who do they say will benefit or be harmed by this measure, and how do they support that claim?

How can I find them?

  • FDsys (Free) – Includes hearings from 1995 to the present (and selected hearings from 1985-1994)
    FDsys (which replaced GPO Access in March 2012) is the main online portal for accessing US government information and is the best place to find Congressional hearings from the past 20 years. FDsys includes the full text of most, although not all, Congressional hearings from 1995-present. Try this advanced search link to search directly for Congressional Hearings.  (see an example of a hearing)
  • Your local Federal Depository Library (Free) – Coverage varies
    Many libraries across the US serve as Federal Depository Libraries for government publications. Libraries involved in this program are grappling with the increasing share of government publications available electronically and what this means for the future of the FDLP. But depository libraries remain valuable resources for getting specialized assistance with accessing government information, as well as places to access publications that haven’t been digitized.If you find the citation for a Congressional Hearing that you can’t find online through FDsys or Proquest Congressional, an FDLP library is the best place to turn.  Until recently, many depository libraries received paper copies of hearings and the supplementary documents submitted by those who testified at the hearing.  You can usually find these by searching the library catalog for the hearing title.
    More info about public access to the FDLP libraries is available here.
    Find your local depository library here.
  • Proquest Congressional (Paid) – Coverage varies with subscription, but includes at least abstracts for hearings from 1970-present
    Proquest Congressional lets you search for the titles and abstracts of hearings on the topics you’re interested in.  It’s easy to use and I find it helpful for collecting the exact titles of hearings I’m interested in.  Then I usually go to FDsys or my library’s government documents collection to access the actual hearing publication.

What about unpublished hearings and transcripts? And older Congressional hearings?

  • For older hearings (1800s-1960s), you may want to try using the Congressional Information Service CIS Hearings Index. The National Archives has a useful resource page explaining this in greater depth.
  • The publication process for hearings is more complex than I’ve explained in this post.  The University of Chicago Law Library has an excellent yet concise overview with additional resources for accessing documents at each step of the way.
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