12 Foreign Government Information

Gwen Sinclair

Learning Objectives

  • Learn about the differences and similarities between government information in the U.S. and other countries.
  • Become familiar with the main resources for foreign government information.
  • Learn strategies for finding and acquiring foreign government information and documents.


The emphasis of this chapter is the government publications issued by nations. It is beyond the scope of this text to cover in detail the government information of every foreign government that currently exists or that that has existed in the past. Instead, the aim is to introduce the types of government information available, strategies librarians can use to locate foreign government information, and approaches to collecting foreign government publications.

Developed nations often have national libraries and government publishing offices similar to the Library of Congress and the Government Publishing Office. For example, in Britain the official government publisher is Her (or His) Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO). However, national libraries in developing countries are sometimes underresourced and may be unable to maintain comprehensive collections of the nation’s government issuances or to create indexes or bibliographies of government publications. Furthermore, many countries have not established depository systems for government publications. Therefore, significant barriers sometimes exist to finding and using these countries’ government information.


Cover of The thermal conductivity of artificial graphites and its relationship to electrical resistivity
Figure 1. Mason, I. B. & Knibbs, R. H. (1962). The thermal conductivity of artificial graphites and its relationship to electrical resistivity. London: HMSO.

Statutory Law, Regulations, and Legal Materials

Like the U.S., most countries publish a group of core legal materials including the constitution, statutory and administrative laws, and gazettes of legislative proceedings. “The official gazette of a particular country is the main source for publication of legislation…regulations and decrees, legal notices, sometimes treaties, and in some countries even texts of court decisions…”[1] While many countries make their legal materials available online for free, some charge fees to view or download certain publications. In addition, online availability may not include the full extent of all publications.

In most cases, the documents are in the language. English translations of some legal materials have been made, but for the most part, a researcher would need to be proficient in the country’s official language(s) to be able to read the texts. In fact, translations are not considered authoritative, so some governments decline to provide translations of legal material. Researchers who do not know the language may need to rely on secondary sources written in English or another language.

Another potential barrier to using foreign legal materials is that they are formatted and organized in ways that may differ substantially from U.S. legal resources. As a result, even experienced law librarians may need to spend time familiarizing themselves with the organization and finding aids of the official legal publications of a given country.

Fortunately, librarians have developed guides to make it easier to discover foreign legal material. The Law Library of Congress maintains links to a number of online resources for foreign legal materials and offers a Guide to Law Online for foreign countries. The Documents Center of the University of Michigan maintains Government Gazettes Online, with links to each country’s gazette and a brief description of the contents of each. Law schools also publish guides to foreign legal materials, such as Yale Law School’s Lillian Goldman Law Library guides to legal material for most countries and hosts the Avalon Project, a collection of important legal documents covering treaties and agreements, diplomacy, and other topics worldwide.

Subscription Databases for Legal Material

The following subscription databases provide access to foreign legal materials:

  • Westlaw and Lexis offer modules covering certain foreign countries.
  • The HeinOnline database includes a Foreign & International Law Resources Database that includes works that cover specific areas of the law in foreign countries, such as birthright citizenship.
  • LLMC Digital has digitized codes and legislative materials for many foreign countries.
  • The Brill Foreign Law Guide “is a … database offering relevant information on sources of foreign law, including complete bibliographic citations to legislation, the existence of English translations and selected references to secondary sources.”[2]

Additional databases are listed on the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies’ Databases for Foreign Law guide. These databases may be available in law or large research libraries.

Legal information institutes provide free access to legal material of selected countries. The World Legal Information Institute includes databases from 20 countries. It partners with regional legal information institutes to acquire content.

Data & Statistics

General Resources

  • The United Nations maintains a list of the national statistical offices of UN member countries.
  • Country-by-country statistical resources compiled by intergovernmental organizations are discussed in Chapter 13.
  • Many libraries subscribe to Europa World Yearbook or its online equivalent, Europa World Plus, which contain extensive political and economic information about the countries of the world.
  • Economist Intelligence Unit is a popular resource for international statistics and analysis of economic and political trends.
  • The University of California-Berkeley Library maintains a topical guide with extensive links to international statistics from a number of sources.

Many countries and smaller government jurisdictions publish statistical compendia similar to the Statistical Abstract of the United States. These may be available in print and/or electronic format. Some countries rely on intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) to acquire and publish data such as demographic surveys. The UNData database provides the most current and thorough demographic and economic data about some countries. It also provides links to national statistical offices. Statistical compendia are also issued by intergovernmental organizations such as the African Development Bank’s Compendium of Statistics on Bank Group Operations.

Subscription Databases for Statistics

  • ProQuest publishes a database of national statistical compendia, ProQuest Statistical Abstracts of the World, designed to provide information similar to ProQuest’s Statistical Abstract of the United States. Note that not all countries are included.
  • China Data Online includes China Statistical Databases and China Census Databases.
  • The Eurostat database is produced by the statistical office of the European Union. Eurostat’s main purpose is to provide European statistics for inter-country comparisons.
  • CEIC publishes several databases that include economic and financial statistics worldwide or for specific countries.
  • Other relevant databases maintained by IGOs are listed in Chapter 13.

Population and Vital Statistics

Global census data is available through IPUMS, a research project of the University of Minnesota. Many countries conduct national population counts similar to the U.S. decennial census. However, developing countries may lack the infrastructure and technical knowledge to conduct accurate enumerations, so they may rely on sampling to collect data for estimates. In some European countries, population counts are derived from population registers rather than surveys. The United Nations publishes manuals to assist national census agencies with planning and conducting census surveys and analyzing the results. Similarly, the U.S. Census Bureau provides assistance to other countries and makes their data available through its International Data Base. EastView Geospatial offers the Global Census Archive of census data for Latin American countries, Japan, and South Africa. Because most countries have centralized the collection of , there is frequently a national register where one may find the country’s vital statistics.


Cover of Handbook on Census 2011 results: India volume 1
Figure 2. India. Office of the Registrar General & Census. Commissioner (2014). Handbook on census 2011 results, India. Volume 1. New Delhi: Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India.

Business and Economic Statistics

A handful of commercial databases include government statistics for foreign countries. Please consult the commercial databases mentioned in Chapter 6 and the IGO statistical databases described in Chapter 13 for additional resources.

  • CountryData Online covers political, economic, financial, and social data for over 140 countries. It is primarily concerned with data related to assessing risk factors.
  • EastView Information Services’ e-collection includes statistical resources for China and Russia.
  • Global Financial Data is an important source for historical economic data for over 150 countries.
  • Indiastat combines government and non-government economic and social statistical sources for India.
  • Statista includes government and non-government data covering industries and economic activity in over 50 countries.


Figure 3. Buku tahunan perangkaan Sarawak (Yearbook of statistics, Sarawak). (1972). Kuching: Jabatan Perangkaan.

Archival Collections

The availability of government records through national archives or records centers varies widely. In addition, open records laws are significantly different from those of the U.S., affecting the ability of researchers to request declassification.

Colonial governments often maintain records related to their current or former colonies. For instance, the Archives nationales d’outre-mer contains documents relating to France’s colonial possessions. In the same vein, the victors in international conflicts may have seized records from a defeated country. In the U.S., Record group 242, National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized, includes microfilmed records from Germany, Italy, and Japan, including territories that they occupied during World War II.  

Libraries have recognized that many small developing countries lack the capacity to perform web archiving and have stepped in to fill the void. For instance, the Web Archiving Project of the Pacific Islands aims to archive the content of government websites, blogs, and other sources in Pacific countries and territories. It is a collaboration between the National Library of New Zealand, the National Library of Australia, and the  University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library’s Hawaiian and Pacific Collections.

Specialized archives acquire and make available government records relevant to their overall missions. An example is Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. It houses personal documentation of individuals who perished in or survived the Holocaust, government records related to the Holocaust, and copies of documents related to war crimes trials. Countries in the former Soviet bloc have opened archives that allow individuals to find surveillance records created by internal security agencies. The Stasi Records Agency, which holds the records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic, is one example.

Researchers may consult published guides to selected records of individual countries.


  • National Archives of India. Index to the Foreign & Political Department records.
  • Library of Congress. Checklist of archives in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tokyo, Japan, 1868-1945

U.S. government agencies have occasionally published guides to foreign government records. The U.S. Department of State maintains the World Wide Diplomatic Archives Index, a database of information about diplomatic archives in many countries. The Internal Revenue Service compiled Sources of Information from Abroad, a guide to the location of vital records, land records, company information, and other types of records relevant to taxation. It has apparently not been updated since 1993.

Copyright for Government Publications

In contrast to the United States, most countries claim copyright on government publications. In some cases, the online availability of government publications is restricted due to copyright. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) maintains links to each member country’s intellectual property offices and laws.

Additional Resources

The Library of Congress (LC) collects foreign government publications through direct acquisition and exchange programs. Many large research libraries participate in LC’s Cooperative Acquisition Program, which operates field offices in Cairo, Islamabad, Jakarta, Nairobi, New Delhi, and Rio that collect government publications and other materials from specific countries in the region. It is an important source of government documents and maps produced in many developing countries.

The ALA GODORT International Documents Task Force provides a forum for librarians who work with intergovernmental or foreign government documents. It also provides links to selected resources for librarians who work with international collections.

Librarians can turn to research libraries with significant area studies collections to find expertise on government information. For instance, Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies collects government documents of countries on the continent of Africa. Northwestern University Libraries also maintains a list of links to foreign government agencies.

Specialized research libraries maintain collections of foreign government documents in their areas of interest. For example, the National Agricultural Library has collected agricultural publications of foreign governments through exchange programs since 1866.[3] The Center for Research Libraries (CRL) “holds several hundred thousand volumes of publications from the government agencies of more than 100 countries, including more than 1,750 official gazettes. CRL frequently augments its historical collections of original format government documents with microform collections either purchased or acquired through its cooperative programs.”[4] Documents may be obtained from NAL and CRL through interlibrary loan/document delivery.

Foreign government embassies and consulates in the U.S. can be valuable sources of information. A list of all of the foreign embassies and consulates in the U.S. is available on the State Department website.

Collection Development

Several vendors specialize in acquiring government publications of selected countries. ALA’s Association for Library Collections & Technical Services maintains a list of foreign book dealers that may offer government publications as part of their sales programs. However, in some countries there are no vendors selling government publications, and some nations do not have arrangements whereby libraries can acquire government publications by subscription. In such situations, librarians must seek to develop relationships with government offices and perhaps even personally visit their offices to obtain documents. Collection development for maps is discussed in Chapter 14.

Open Government

In contrast to the United States, government information is less freely available in most nations. Many countries, especially those in the developing world, do not have freedom of information laws. As of 2005, only 66 countries had freedom of information laws on the books. The laws vary considerably in the extent to which they mandate broad access to government information. For instance, laws may contain restrictive definitions of public information or government agencies that serve to limit access to certain categories of information. Similarly, laws vary in the mechanisms they provide for citizens to challenge their enforcement. Overall, freedom of information laws are increasing, but some countries, especially in eastern Europe, have passed official secrets acts that restrict access to government-held information.[5] Many nations have begun open government initiatives similar to the U.S. government’s Data.gov. The Global Open Data Index compares the state of open government in about 100 countries.

Librarian’s Library


Fleming, M. C., & Nellis, J. G. (1995). INSTAT: international statistics sources. London: Routledge.

INSTAT provides access to many statistical sources on economics, business and social sciences topics. Unfortunately, it has not been updated since 1994. Routledge also publishes guides to international financial and labor statistics.

American Library Association, Government Documents Round Table. (1997). Guide to official publications of foreign countries. (2nd ed.). Chicago: ALA Government Documents Round Table.

A publication produced by a team of librarians who work with international documents, this volume, although dated, provides the most detailed bibliographies of the government publications of most countries. Because it was last updated in the 1990s, it does not include recently created nations such as Timor-Leste or South Sudan. It also lacks coverage of dependent territories and nations with a population of less than 100,000.

New York University School of Law. (2009). Guide to foreign and international legal citations. (2nd ed.). Austin: Wolters Kluwer Law & Business.

An essential guide to constructing and interpreting citations to foreign and international legal materials.


Digital Government Society of North America. (2010-). Government information quarterly. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Formerly Journal of Government Information and Government Publications Review, GIQ frequently publishes articles about government information, information policy, and e-government abroad.

The international information & library review. (1969-). New York: Academic Press.

This journal frequently publishes articles about government information in foreign countries and librarianship abroad.

  1. Germain, C. E. (2011). Digitizing the world’s laws. In Danner, R. A. & Winterton, J. (Eds). The ILL international handbook of legal information management (pp. 181-200). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  2. Brill. Foreign law guide. https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/browse/foreign-law-guide.
  3. National Agricultural Library. NAL history: National Agricultural Library timeline. https://www.nal.usda.gov/nal-history.
  4. Center for Research Libraries. CRL collecting areas. http://www.crl.edu/collections/crl-collecting-areas
  5. Ackerman, J. M. & Sandoval-Ballesteros, I. E. (2006). The global explosion of freedom of information laws. Administrative Law Review, 58(1), 85-130.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Foreign Government Information Copyright © 2020 by Gwen Sinclair is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book