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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2009

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Bytes of Note - U.S. Government Information

The beginning of a new presidential administration is a good time to explore the tremendous amount of environmental information to be had from the U.S. government, both new and old.

At this time, many in the environmental field may be considering ways to become a part of the new administration. Every four years, the U.S. Congress publishes a list of approximately 8,000 jobs that are or may be political appointments. This publication, United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions, is known as the “Plum Book” not only for its purple cover but the plum jobs inside it. The 2008 edition contains 174 positions at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Council on Environmental Quality alone. Many other familiar agencies have environmental appointments, such as the Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment (the Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service report to this position); the Department of Defense’s Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environment, Safety, and Occupational Health; and the Department of State’s Assistant Secretary for Oceans, International Environment, and Science Affairs. There are also several lesser-known environmental agencies and commissions, including the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board; the Morris K. Udall Scholarship and Excellence in National Environmental Policy Foundation; and the Marine Mammal Commission. Information about the nuts and bolts of political appointments can be found in the Office of Personnel Management’s Presidential Transition Guide to Federal Human Resources Management.

For those of us not seeking a political appointment but rather the answer to a research question, government agencies and libraries hold huge stores of environmental information. The General Services Administration (GSA) runs, the official U.S. government Web portal, but its environment, energy, and agriculture page gives a poor scope of environmental and sustainability work in the government and is geared more toward consumers than researchers. However, several agencies provide more in-depth, cross-topic information. The Government Printing Office Web site, GPO Access, provides an environment-specific list of resources, an excellent source for legislation and regulations. The Thomas Web site at the Library of Congress  is another good place to look for information on legislation. It does not have subject categories, but most of its subpages have keyword search functions; researchers can look up Senate or House bill texts on one page and find proceedings and debates in the Congressional Record on another. Thomas also contains links to lists of Senate and House committee home pages, such as the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The National Archives and Records Administration has a goldmine of featured images and documents on historical environmental topics (including energy, transportation, disasters, parks, and forests) with instructions on how to retrieve electronically available portions. The Archives has guides to inactive records of government agencies (not necessarily available online) as well. Researchers can explore the records with a keyword search, but they are organized under and can be searched by group number, which can be found via an alphabetical topic index or topic clusters (links to these are to the right under the subhead “Guide to Federal Records”). For example, a guide to 1944–1996 papers of the Environmental Protection Agency and its predecessors are found as record group number 412.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent investigative reporting agency of the legislative branch, issues papers on various topics at the request of congressional committees. Researchers can browse these “Reports and Testimonies” by topic and agency. For instance, the GAO issued a report in late September last year on the importance of the U.S. government’s role in developing carbon capture and storage to mitigate atmospheric power plant carbon dioxide emissions. Another report outlined progress cleaning up and disposing debris from Hurricane Katrina.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress also prepares reports on various topics for Congress. Unfortunately, the CRS does not make its reports directly available to the public, so there is no comprehensive way to find them. Several libraries and open government initiatives (such as are making an effort to address this problem. A separate organization, the National Council for Science and the Environment, maintains a collection of more than 2,000 environment-themed CRS reports, including a 2007 report by staffer Rhoda Margesson that clearly presents the federal funding mechanisms for international disaster and post-conflict aid along with present policy challenges.

Researchers can also use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process to find government information that agencies do not actively publish. Individuals may write to request information from executive agencies, and the information must be provided within a certain time if not exempted by the act. Sometimes a charge for copying is required. Each agency has a person designated to oversee FOIA requests; the Department of Justice maintains a government-wide FOIA contact list. Individuals and organizations often share the results of FOIA requests online. For example, the National Security Archive is a library of previously unavailable documents obtained through FOIA and the declassification process for secret documents. Many of these documents have environmental implications, including The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958–1963 collection, which features evidence of public health risks from radiation exposure. Topical collections are available for browsing and include nuclear history and humanitarian crises such as the Rwandan genocide.

It is not always necessary to use FOIA to get information from an agency, however. The Federal Depository Library Program is a system of libraries required to provide free access to government-provided publications and electronic information to any person. Library staff at depository libraries are usually experts in finding government information; researchers can often count on them to ferret out information well beyond the publications the program provides. In addition, major government agencies also have libraries of their own. The Federal Library and Information Center Committee maintains one list of libraries of permanent member agencies and another of nonmember federal libraries. Many if not most of these agency libraries serve the public as part of their mission. In 2006 and 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency’s library system suffered from extensive cuts and closures, but the agency has since restored many of the lost libraries and services.

Agency public affairs offices can also be useful to researchers, though as the primary contacts for journalists, public affairs officers may add political spin to the information they provide. The GSA maintains a list of agency press release Web sites. These press releases always include contact information for an agency press officer for a given issue.

In addition to traditional published reports, some agencies also compile indexes of citations or full text of their own and others’ reports, scholarly journal articles, and data. These publication indexes are in some cases the preeminent scholarly databases in their fields. The GPO links to databases in agriculture, criminal justice, education, energy, health, and space exploration.

The judicial branch has so many sources it may require a separate column to properly deal with it, but the GPO Access guide to judicial branch resources serves as a good starting point for exploring environmental court cases. Links on this site include the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket system, which contains complete histories of individual Court cases, and a map with links to all U.S. federal trial and appellate courts.

Finally, although Google has only been around for 10 years, it feels like an old friend in the research process, and government information is no exception. Google Advanced Search, reached by clicking on “Advanced Search” to the right of the Google search bar, allows researchers to restrict searches to specific domains, like or (the Bureau of Reclamation). The same search can be done on the main Google screen by adding “site:” to a search. For example, a Google search for < lemur > yields information on lemurs from the Smithsonian Institution.

GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental resources librarian at the Harvard College Library. Material for Bytes of Note may be directed to him at

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