- Understand different types of local government entities and which functions they govern
- Learn about the most common types of state and local government publications
- Develop a conceptual understanding of state library agencies and state archives and their services and collections
- Become familiar with state and local law libraries
- Identify sources for comparative legal research
Understanding state and local government information is important not only to provide reference assistance, but also to guide collection development for government information. There are over 89,000 units of local government in the U.S., with Illinois having the largest number, 6,968, and Hawaiʻi the fewest, 21. Three thousand and seven of these local governments are counties, the principal unit of local government. The rest are municipalities, school districts, municipal utility districts, and myriad other local county subdivisions. Each of them holds records and has developed some method of organizing and indexing those records. Dating back to colonial times, the county conducts most of the basic government functions such as law enforcement, recording births and deaths, building public works projects like roads and bridges, collecting taxes, and regulating commerce and education. Consequently, “County records in all but a few states constitute the most important historical documentation of the American past.”
Bibliographies and Guides
For pre-statehood publications, The Territorial Papers of the United States is a compilation of documents about the territories east of the Mississippi River from 1787-1845. More recently, Readex has developed the online database Territorial Papers of the United States, 1764-1953, that promises to be the most comprehensive collection of territorial papers, with coverage of all of the U.S. territories.
For state publications published prior to 1940, the most important reference work is Manual on the Use of State Publications by Jerome K. Wilcox. It serves as a guide to the most important series published by each state, bibliographies, the publications of national associations of state officials, and printing and distribution systems for each state.
The Monthly Checklist of State Publications, published from 1910 through 1994 by the Library of Congress, was once the most comprehensive bibliographic guide to state publications. Within it one can find titles such as Rules for Environmental Lead Investigations by the Maine Bureau of Health, An Educational Tour of the Kansas State Printing Plant by the Kansas State Printer, and Modern Treatment of Leprosy in the Philippine Islands by the Health Service of the Philippines. It is important because it indexes state publications not only at the series level, but also analyzes the articles within. Since the demise of the Monthly Checklist, one must rely on lists or catalog records published by individual states or territories.
Individual guides to state publications are available for some states. Examples include A Descriptive Catalogue of the Official Publications of the Territory and State of Indiana and Publications of the State of Ohio 1803-1896. Note that many of these guides cover historical publications, but few guides to current state publications have been compiled. Although outdated, the Library of Congress’ Government Publications: A Guide to Bibliographic Tools is a comprehensive listing of bibliographical works for each state through the early 1970s.
The Center for Research Libraries (CRL) began to collect state documents comprehensively in 1952. In fact, its collection of state publications is more comprehensive than that of the Library of Congress. Even so, the collection does not include all publications. It excludes internal agency newsletters, agricultural station publications, maps, and state court reports. Many of the state publications held by CRL are not cataloged, so one must still rely on a bibliography such as those mentioned above to identify documents of interest.
State Depository Systems
Many states operate depository systems for state documents. For instance, the Kansas State Library operates the depository system for Kansas documents. Some states also have digital libraries of state documents, like the Kansas Government Information Online Library. Most state depository programs issue checklists of documents received or distributed.
Many states have developed their own classification schemes for state documents, discussed in Chapter 16. Bibliography of Classification Schemes Used for State Document Collections lists reference works that describe the classification schemes used in various states.
State and Local Government Organization
Each state maintains a list of all of the government administrative bodies that operate in the state. You can imagine that large states like Florida or California might have hundreds or even thousands of government bodies. While many state agencies are common to all states and are analogous with U.S. federal agencies (e.g., Department of Transportation, Department of Agriculture), many agencies reflect the unique aspects of their states, such as the Florida Department of Citrus, Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, or the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Some agencies are public/private partnerships while others are strictly under state government control.
You are probably familiar with common types of government entities, such as counties, cities, and towns. Across the United States, one finds a variety of government jurisdictions and organizations, many of which levy taxes:
- School/college districts
- Utility, water, and drainage districts
- Boards and commissions
- Intergovernmental organizations
- Local government associations
To get a sense, examine the Fort Bend County, Texas Appraisal District website. Scroll through the long list of municipalities, drainage districts, municipal utility districts, a community college district, water control and improvement districts, levee improvement districts, and so forth that exist in the county. There are literally hundreds of government bodies just in that one county!
Intergovernmental Organizations and Associations
Interstate compacts, agencies, and intergovernmental associations are another important source of local government information. The Council of State Governments, a professional association that serves the interests of state government agencies, maintains a database of interstate compacts and agencies. Such interstate agreements enable cooperation with other states in areas such as professional credentials, emergency response, and the treatment of taxpayers who reside in multiple states. For example, the Agreement on Qualifications of Educational Personnel facilitates the transfer of teaching credentials between states.
Intergovernmental organizations can be composed of officials in one area of professional responsibility, as in the National Association of County Surveyors, or they may include officials from a particular type of government entity within a state, like the Florida Association of Counties or the Georgia Municipal Association. Another example is the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, created by four tribes to manage fisheries and protect the tribes’ treaty fishing rights in the Columbia River basin. The National Governors Association (NGA) lobbies the president and members of Congress on legislation concerning states, especially federal programs that provide aid to states.
It is important to know about these intergovernmental associations because many of them issue studies and statistics about their areas of interest. The National Association of Counties (NACO) is a national advocacy organization concerned with the interaction between counties and the federal government. NACO tracks issues of interest to county governments, e.g., homelessness, out of state sales tax collection for online sales, and block grants, and it publishes policy briefs about federal legislation that affects state funding, such as the treatment of state and local taxes in federal income tax legislation.
State legislators often want to know how other states are responding to trends and social issues. That’s where an organization like the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) can help. The NCSL produces reports and studies on issues that compare different states’ approaches. For a look at how various states have attempted to deal with the current opioid addiction crisis, for example, the NCSL prepared a report on legislation passed by states that includes links to the various bills for easy reference.
Part of providing reference service is helping patrons understand which legal jurisdictions are involved with the patron’s research. A good example of multiple jurisdictions is marijuana laws. As you know, there are federal laws concerning growing, possessing, and selling marijuana. Many states have enacted medical marijuana laws, and a few states have legalized or decriminalized possession of varying amounts of marijuana. Cities may also regulate marijuana dispensaries or establishments. Determining which legal jurisdiction applies goes back to the reference interview, but it’s also a function of the librarian’s familiarity with government agencies. As we learned in Chapter 1, sometimes it is necessary to do some preliminary searching to determine how to proceed.
To give you a framework for thinking about local government information, let’s look at what they manage. Municipal governments typically have jurisdiction over things like roads, sewers, garbage disposal, police and fire, and libraries. In addition, there is often a tourism promotion branch and/or a business development office. Some cities like New York City operate the public education system, while in other cities schools are operated by independent school districts that fall under the control of the state government.
Counties often manage social services, law enforcement for unincorporated areas, courts, land transactions, tax collections, elections, and vital statistics. There is not a hard and fast line between the government functions handled by municipalities and counties, and it often depends on how state law defines government powers. In some cases, the city and county are a combined jurisdiction, such as the City and County of Honolulu.
Another layer of local government is neighborhood boards and associations. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, there are 95 self-governing neighborhood associations that are overseen by neighborhood board coalitions. Neighborhood boards serve as an official mechanism for community members’ views to be represented on issues such as land use, traffic, and law enforcement. Neighborhood board members may be elected or appointed, and the amount of power delegated to the board varies. Neighborhood boards are important not only for the role they play in community engagement, but also because many politicians begin their political careers as neighborhood board members.
Other types of local government entities include utility boards, school boards, and other boards and commissions that have varying levels of authority. Using Portland as an example, dozens of boards and commissions oversee or advise the city on matters such as towing, urban forestry, utilities, building codes, development, and golf courses. Typically, however, the activities of these bodies are governed by sunshine laws that mandate that their proceedings be open to the public. We’ll delve further into sunshine laws in Chapter 17.
State and Local Government Information by Type
What kinds of information do local governments produce? Here are some examples:
State Constitution or City Charter
The state constitution establishes the division of powers between the different branches of government, how local governments are organized and the extent of their powers, the organization of the educational system, the system of taxation, specific rights of the citizens, and other aspects of government. County or city charters are the local government equivalent of a constitution. They spell out the organization of the county into departments and bureaus and describe the powers of each. Charter amendments are the equivalent of constitutional amendments. There are atypical arrangements, such as that found in Louisiana, which has a mixed arrangement of local governments that operate under the police jury system, where the legislative and executive branches are combined, or the home rule charter system. It’s important to be aware of the existence of these varied forms of local government.
Researchers may be interested in the process for amending the constitution or charter. Ballotpedia explains the various methods of amending constitutions and describes the procedure used in each state. Similarly, amendments to a city charter can be proposed by a charter commission or legislative body and voted upon by the electorate.
Legislation and Legislative Proceedings
Just as in the federal government, state governments have legislatures, assemblies, or other legislative bodies that consider and pass bills, conduct investigations, and appropriate funds to run the government. Some conduct legislative sessions annually, while others only meet every two years. In cities and counties, analogous bodies such as city or town councils, county councils, parish councils, etc. perform these functions. The proceedings of legislative bodies may be published in a journal and there may also be television broadcasts or webcasts of the body’s meetings. Minutes of committee, board, or council meetings may be published on a website or retained in an administrative office. Legislative bodies conduct hearings and solicit testimony from government officials and citizens. Transcripts of these hearings may or may not be published.
Resources for state legislative materials include:
- Fiscal Note, a database published by CQ Roll Call, includes legislation, administrative law, and analysis for all 50 states.
- LexisNexis and Westlaw, databases usually available in law libraries, contain case law and statutory law for all states.
- The Center for Research Libraries has a comprehensive collection of state legislative materials.
- State libraries, research libraries, and large public libraries maintain collections of current and historical legislative materials for their states and even neighboring states.
Court Decisions and Records
Each state has its own judicial organization. Although the names of courts may be the same in different states, they do not always have the equivalent jurisdiction. For example, California has superior courts, the equivalent of circuit courts in Hawaiʻi. In Texas, the higher court equivalent is district court, and county courts are the lower courts. Some cities have municipal courts, such as New York City’s Criminal Court and Civil Court, which typically have jurisdiction over traffic cases and small claims. In some jurisdictions, such cases are handled by Justice of the Peace courts.
Annual Reports and Serials
Many executive branch agencies publish annual reports to the legislative body to document their activities during the preceding fiscal year and present statistics, budget figures, and other types of information. Similar to the federal government, state and local agencies also issue bulletins, journals, newsletters, and other serial publications. They run the gamut from Arizona Highways, a glossy travel magazine published by the Arizona Department of Transportation to promote tourism in the state, to Idaho Disease Bulletin, published by the Idaho Division of Public Health to inform healthcare providers about infectious diseases. Of course, serials published by state universities are also government publications and cover a wide range of subject matter, from BuzzWords, the newsletter of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Florida, to the Maine Journal of Conservation and Sustainability from the University of Maine. Some states issue regulatory publications that are similar to the Federal Register. For instance, the Pennsylvania Bulletin publishes notices from all three branches of government.
Governors and other chief executives prepare a budget that is submitted to the legislative body each year or biennially. Agencies’ budget requests are transmitted first to the executive along with background documentation, then the executive makes adjustments and submits the budget request to the legislative body, which makes further adjustments through the legislative process. Although the budget is published, the background documentation may not be. It can be difficult to determine where specific budget items originated or how and why the amounts were changed during the appropriations process.
Municipal Codes and Charters
A municipal or administrative code is a compilation of city laws and typically covers matters such as elections, sanitation, public safety, traffic laws, park rules, zoning, housing, and construction. Similarly, municipal rules are the equivalent of state administrative rules or the federal Code of Federal Regulations. Many cities have arranged with commercial publishers to publish their governing documents. For example, New York City contracts with American Legal Publishing Corporation to maintain its administrative code, rules, and charter. While current codes may be found online, previous editions of codes may only be available in libraries or the city or county clerk’s office.
Most states issue an annual statistical compendium or abstract. These are listed in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Guide to State Statistical Abstracts, although it is somewhat outdated. Note that some state compendia cover data from a wide range of state and federal sources while others, such as the South Carolina Statistical Abstract, are more limited in scope. Larger cities may also offer statistical databases like Cincinnati’s Department of City Planning Statistical Database.
Most state and local government agencies publish at least a few years’ worth of statistics online, but the data may not be available through a central portal. In response to this decentralization, the Government Documents Roundtable of the American Library Association maintains a State Databases LibGuide with links to state databases about various topics. Bear in mind that the guide points to downloadable data rather than electronic facsimiles of printed publications containing tabular data.
Many statistical reports are prepared by state governments to comply with federal regulations. Thus, Crime in Alaska is compiled as part of the Uniform Crime Reports to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Similarly, in Georgia the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement issues report card reports of test scores in partial fulfillment of federal reporting requirements. Other reports may be mandated by state laws or ordered by a court that is overseeing the state’s handling of an issue such as prisons or mental health facilities.
A common line of inquiry concerns the proportion of students who are eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program, which is considered an indicator of poverty. The program is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but local school districts maintain data about student participation that is usually aggregated by each state’s department of education. Take a look at the Oregon Department of Education’s Free or Reduced Lunch Report, which presents about 20 years of data on students who receive a free or reduced price lunch in each of Oregon’s public school districts.
State and local reports using Census data are discussed in chapter 7.
Cities, counties, universities, and other government entities create a variety of plans that guide urban development, transportation planning, emergency management, neighborhood revitalization, and other areas. A comprehensive plan, like Indianapolis’ Comprehensive Plan for Indianapolis and Marion County, is composed of numerous plans for various aspects of city life, including parks and recreation, land use, and transportation. Usually, the creation of such plans involves a period of public meetings and the gathering of input, the creation of a draft plan, more meetings and feedback mechanisms, and a final plan that is supposed to guide development in the specified area. Researchers may be interested in viewing the documents that went into the creation of a plan or the comments received, which may be unpublished.
Planning documents such as management plans, environmental assessments, and environmental impact statements (EISs) may be available in an online repository. California’s DEQAnet Database is one such site, although it contains summaries of EISs rather than the full text. States also publish bulletins listing actions taken on environmental assessments or EISs such as the Environmental Monitor of Massachusetts.
Tourism and business promotion are important government functions. Governments advertise their state’s or city’s attractiveness to target audiences such as visitors, meeting planners, corporations, and retirees. Frequently, local governments maintain a website like Loveland, Colorado’s Live in Loveland or Do Business in Loveland that spell out taxation, business registration, regulations, and other important information for individuals or businesses contemplating a move to the city.
Administrative Rules and Agency Decisions
States and municipalities issue regulations in the form of administrative rules that detail how laws or codes are to be implemented. In some states, like North Dakota, administrative rules are compiled into an administrative code, which is divided into titles that cover various areas of the law. Thus, Title 72 of the North Dakota Administrative Code under the Secretary of State’s office includes Chapter 72-02.2-02, which covers rules for the “mixed fighting style” of combative sports.
Just as in the federal government, state agencies issue administrative law decisions. In some states such as North Dakota, adjudication of administrative law is centralized. North Dakota’s Office of Administrative Hearings provides administrative law judges to hear administrative law cases for state agencies, local governments, and tribal governments. In other states like California, each agency has its own body that issues decisions on administrative laws, such as the Water Rights Board. Decisions may be unpublished, in which case a researcher would have to request a copy from the agency in question. In some situations, such as professional licensure boards, decisions may be confidential.
As the chief legal authority for each state, the attorney general advises agencies and issues opinions about the interpretation and applicability of state and federal law. Just as with agency decisions, attorney general opinions are not always published. City/county attorneys and university general counsel offices serve the same function for cities and universities.
Mapping, Geospatial Data, and Real Property
Most states and many cities and counties have geospatial data portals that provide access to downloadable mapping products and may include interactive maps such as the fire maps created by the City of Redding, California during the wildfires in 2018. Maps and geospatial data are covered in chapters 14 and 15.
Governments publish inventories of public lands, wetlands, forests, parks, and other categories. The extent to which the government owns or controls land varies substantially. For instance, Nevada leads the nation in the percentage of its land that is owned by the federal government, but it ranks last in the percentage of land owned by the state. Alaska is number 2 in both federal and state ownership of land. Arizona is the state with the most land in tribal hands.
Elections and Voter Information
Libraries, especially public libraries, frequently prepare information about candidates, voting, and elections. Components may include:
- Voter registration information
- Links to polling places
- Voter identification requirements
- Copies of ballot measures
- Official voter guides
Librarians should be familiar with the electoral process in the library’s service area. Patrons sometimes do not understand election concepts such as open and closed primaries, blanket primaries, or redistricting. Websites like Ballotpedia or Votesmart, which have links to all state elections and campaign finance offices, can be helpful, as are local elections officials. GODORT has also created voting and election toolkits for each state. Publications like the State of Arizona Elections Procedures Manual can answer many questions.
Some libraries collect advertisements and ephemera distributed by candidates. While it is not government information, it is worth mentioning here because of its historical value for election researchers. Librarians also play an important role in connecting members of the public with elected representatives. Linking to or creating a “contact my elected representatives” page, like Locating Elected Officials by the Camden County Library System in New Jersey, is an important contribution to civic engagement.
State and local governments are required to post public notices of a variety of actions. For example, proposed rules, public auctions, public meetings, draft planning documents, utility rate hikes, and other actions may be announced. Some jurisdictions designate a particular newspaper for the publication of these legal notices, while others consider publishing on a website evidence of public notice. The Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association has a combined site where legal notices from the Oregonian and the Daily Journal of Commerce can be found. They cover everything from property foreclosures to notices of planning documents to sheriff’s sales for delinquent property taxes.
State and local government agencies conduct sales or auctions of surplus, seized, or abandoned property. For instance, the Honolulu city auction site lists abandoned and unclaimed vehicles. Patrons sometimes ask about abandoned or surplus property lists or auctions, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the agencies that handle these functions in your area.
Online Availability of Information
Although recently issued documents are usually posted online, documents produced more than a few years ago are often not available electronically. In such cases, a researcher might have to visit a state documents depository or the city or county clerk’s office to view documents. Newspapers and broadcast news can be good sources of information about local government if an in-person visit is not feasible. The Library of Congress maintains an archive of websites that includes state web portals and state agency websites.
The amount of information available on websites for cities and counties vary widely. While many cities and counties have robust websites with access to current and historic data, smaller jurisdictions may not be able to afford professional web developers. As a result, websites may not be updated and may not have current information posted. Furthermore, archiving web content may be a low priority. For example, examine the Orono, Maine website. On the landing page, one can see that Orono is promoting a particular image as a travel destination and a nice place to live and work. However, if we look at the town council agenda and minutes page, we see that only the current three years are available online.
Where is printed state or local government information archived? State archives usually issue instructions about records management for state and local government information. Typically the city or county clerk is tasked with maintaining city or county records. Be aware that records may not be indexed, so if the date is unknown, a researcher may have to rely on news sources to pinpoint the time period to determine where to look in board minutes or other sources.
Along the same lines, smaller towns and counties frequently do not have staff assigned to manage electronic interaction with the public. Citizens often expect information to be posted online and to be updated frequently, but a telephone call may actually be necessary to get routine information about matters such as rubbish pickup or tax assessments. E-government services may be minimal or non-existent, and responses to emailed inquiries may be delayed.
The American Association of Law Libraries published a state-by-state analysis of laws and practices pertaining to permanent public access to electronic government information. While some states had a good legal framework to ensure permanent public access, others had barely started on the process or had not established enforcement mechanisms. It seems that the situation has not changed very much since the report was written. A 2009 study of permanence of online government documents found that state documents were particularly susceptible to disappearing, probably due to a lack of policies and procedures for ensuring permanent access. Of course, that doesn’t account for the information that was never posted online in the first place.
State and Local Government Libraries
State libraries generally serve state agencies and the state legislature. They often provide the following services:
- Training for public librarians
- Coordination of statewide access to databases
- Administration of grants funded through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA)
- Maintain statistics about libraries in the state
- Federal depository library
- Administer the distribution of state documents in state depository systems
- Maintain local history and genealogy collections
- Function as large public libraries
A professional association, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), advocates for and provides training to state libraries and it maintains a list of all of the state libraries in the states and territories.
Some states also have legislative libraries that are analogous to the Library of Congress. Libraries like the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library are administratively part of the state’s legislature. While their collections and services vary, state legislative research agencies like Hawaiʻi’s Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) prepare topical reports on current issues at the request of legislators.
State Archives and Historical Societies
Jones (1980) outlined the main types of records found in state and local archives and records collections.
- Birth, death, marriage, and divorce records
- Wills and estates
- Records of orphans, apprentices, and public wards
- Courts and grand juries
- Military and veterans
- Transportation (roads, bridges, airfields, etc.)
- Coroners’ inquests
- Powers of attorney
State archives not only maintain archives of state and county documents, they also administer laws and regulations concerning the retention and disposition of state and county documents.
Archiving of electronic information may be covered by a state law or policy. For instance, Pennsylvania has issued the policy document Guidance for the Form of Permanent Recordation for Judicial and County Offices that directs counties on the preservation of born-digital documents. In other states, such as Alabama, there may not be any mandate or program to capture electronic publications. The Best Practices Exchange is a conference and online community for people who deal with managing digital information including archiving state and local documents.
You might not immediately suppose that state historical societies would be repositories for government documents or records, but the Wisconsin Historical Society, a public-private partnership, houses the state archives in addition to pre-statehood maps, the papers of Senator William Proxmire, and other government records.
State and Local Law Libraries
Each state has a supreme court law library that serves the state’s appellate courts and the judicial branch. They also provide research assistance to the general public, provide resources for pro se litigants, have access to the major legal databases, and help with legislative history research. If you are helping a patron do legal research in another state, a supreme court law library would be a good place to which to refer them.
Many states have a system of county law libraries. For example, Colorado has several law libraries, but there is not a law library in each county. Be aware that county law libraries are not always staffed by law librarians. Interestingly, the National Indian Law Library in Boulder, Colorado specializes in Indian law.
Other State and Local Government Libraries
Some state agencies operate their own libraries, such as the California Geological Survey Library, the Texas Department of State Health Services Medical Library, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation Library. Not all of these libraries might serve the public, but they can be a resource for librarians who need publications or information about an agency.
University archives can be surprising sources of government information. For example, the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University contains several manuscript collections that include government documents in addition to the papers of the institution’s namesake, President Herbert Hoover.
A common type of reference question concerns how laws governing a particular activity vary from place to place. What the patron usually wants is a neat chart that shows the law in all 50 states or in the 50 largest cities. However, especially with current issues, you may not be able to find an existing compilation. Here are some strategies that you can use to find comparative legal information.
First, associations of state officials such as National Association of State Departments of Agriculture may produce studies of legislation in their areas of interest. The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks current issues that under consideration in state legislatures. For example, they created a page on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), an issue that has been on legislative agendas in a number of states. A second approach is to look for law review articles in Google Scholar or in a legal database such as HeinOnline or NexisUni. An article in the Journal of Animal & Environmental Law, for example, describes differences in state laws regarding industrial hemp production. Third, federal agencies sometimes produce compilations of state laws related to an area they regulate. So, in Drug Per Se Laws: A Review of Their Use in States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reviewed driving under the influence of drugs laws in states. Finally, determine which organizations lobby legislators on the issue. While their publications are not government information, trade associations have an interest in compiling information about pending legislation and legal issues for their members. For instance, the National Cannabis Industry Association issued a report on state cannabis laws in 2018.
Open Records Laws
All states have “sunshine laws,” or laws governing open meetings and access to public records. Typically, these laws cover requirements for retention of records, public notices about records systems and their contents, public notices for government-sponsored meetings, and policies and procedures for making and responding to open records requests. Like the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, discussed in Chapter 17), state open records laws usually apply only to the executive branch. Laws typically require that meeting agendas must be posted, people must know about meetings and have the opportunity to attend and present testimony, and records of decision must be recorded. A designated individual must record the meeting minutes to document the attendance, business transacted, and matters discussed.
State legislatures usually exempt themselves from open records law, just as Congress is exempt from FOIA. This stance derives from the claim that privacy is required for the deliberative process. In other words, if legislators were required to reveal whom they are talking to, the frank and open discussion of issues and proposed legislation would be constricted. This was confirmed by Joe Souki, former Speaker of the Hawaiʻi House of Representatives, who stated, “We are always secretive. It’s part of being a legislator.” Protecting the deliberative process is also the basis for exemptions to open government laws applying to state agencies.
Journalists have frequently been at the forefront pushing for greater transparency in both federal and state government. Thus, it’s not surprising that media organizations like MuckRock and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press publish guides to all 50 states’ open government laws. Some open government advocates fear that the decline in newspapers will result in a void when it comes to asserting the public’s right to know, for newspapers have been behind many landmark court cases that have strengthened public access to government information.
Case Study: Georgia Open Records Act Record Request
By Molly Rowe
- Demonstrate how to navigate online resources in order to find out how to submit a records request in Georgia.
- Present an example of how to submit a records request in Georgia under the Georgia Open Records act.
Question: Are state and city campaign financial documents public record? I am looking for all of the documents relating to the finances of the City of Tybee Island, Georgia 2019 municipal elections for all of the candidates for municipal offices.
The website https://law.georgia.gov/ is a good starting point because it gives access to all of the Georgia laws. A search for record request retrieved information on how to make an open records request. The instructions state that records are able to be requested under the Georgia Open Records Act. Another search for Georgia Open Records Act brings retrieves that act. The Georgia Open Records Act goes on to explain what is considered public record and what is allowed to be requested.
According to the act, “Public record” means all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer based or generated information, data, data fields, or similar material prepared and maintained or received by an agency or by a private person or entity in the performance of a service or function for or on behalf of an agency or when such documents have been transferred to a private person or entity by an agency for storage or future governmental use”. Therefore, election financial documents would fall under this act and can be requested. 
“A request to inspect or copy records may be made either orally or in writing” to the applicable agency. The form for the request can be found here on the “How to Make an Open Records Request” page. The page states that requests “should be made directly to the government agency’s custodian of the records. According to the City of Tybee website, “requests for public records must be made in writing, either via mail, fax, or email, to the City Clerk.” To send a records request for campaign finance documents for all candidates in the 2019 municipal elections in Tybee Island, Georgia, email the City Clerk with the above form. Records requested incur a fee.
Like presidents, governors regularly give speeches, issue orders, and make other public statements. Unlike the president, however, these issuances are not usually compiled, and their availability varies widely. Governor’s papers may be handled in a variety of ways. They may be deposited at a university like the University of Texas at Austin, as in the case of Governor James (Jim) Hogg. If a governor later served as president, his papers may be deposited in a presidential library, as with presidents Reagan and Carter. If he or she served in Congress, though, the papers may not all end up in the same place. For example, Hawaiʻi Governor Neil Abercrombie’s papers from his time as a U.S. Representative were deposited with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, but his gubernatorial papers are in the Hawaiʻi State Archives.
Gubernatorial orders and proclamations issued by the current governor can usually be found on the governor’s website. Those of previous governors may be available online, as are those of the Massachusetts governor, or they may only be available in manuscript form in the state archives.
Papers of State Legislators and Other Officials
Usually, the papers of state legislators remain in the possession of the legislator and are not deposited in a library unless the legislator went on to serve in higher office and happened to include his or her papers from service in the legislature in the deposited materials. State historical societies or university libraries may contain the papers of local government officials. For instance, the Chicago Historical Society houses the papers of several Chicago aldermen and state legislators.
Copyright and State and Local Government Documents
Copyright as applied to state documents can be confusing, in part because certain state publications like session laws and attorney general opinions are not eligible for copyright. However, if laws or decisions are compiled by a commercial publisher, the value-added aspects of the publication, such as headnotes, indices, and footnotes are copyrighted. Some states have legally mandated the copyright of state publications. Librarians should consult the laws of the state in question to ascertain the copyright status of a state government publication. The authority on copyright for state documents is the attorney general of each state. Harvard University’s State Copyright Resource Center is a general guide that can help users determine the copyright status of state documents.
Free State Government Information is a site managed by a group of government information librarians to highlight the issues related to copyright of state governments and to advocate for changes to state copyright laws to allow greater access to state documents. Experts recommend that, barring explicit statements about the copyright status of specific categories of documents, libraries follow fair use guidelines as they would with any other type of publication.
American Association of Law Libraries. Public library collection guidelines for a state and local law collection. https://www.aallnet.org/lispsis/resources-publications/public-library-toolkit/collections/guidelines-state-materials/
This guide covers the basic legal resources that a library should maintain in a collection of state materials.
Chiorazzi, M. G. & Most, M. (2005). Prestatehood legal materials: a fifty-state research guide, including New York City and the District of Columbia. New York: Haworth.
Each chapter covers a different state’s legal materials from the period before it joined the union.
Leiter, R. H. (2018). National survey of state laws (8th ed.). Getzville, NY: William S. Hein & Co., Inc.
This book and online database provides 50-state coverage of the most commonly requested legal topics in business and consumer laws, criminal laws, education laws, employment laws, family laws, general civil laws, real estate laws, and tax laws.
Posner, E. (1964). American state archives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Posner undertook a survey of the progress and conditions of state archives in all fifty states. He found that some states had long-established archival programs, while other states had done very little to establish archives and records management programs. Undoubtedly, the situation has changed in the past fifty years. The great value of Posner’s book is that it describes the major manuscript collections in state archives and outlines their history, including the loss of records due to fires or natural disasters.
Smith, L. L., Barkley, D. C., Cornwall, D. D., Johnson, E. W., & Malcomb, J. L. (2003). Tapping state government information sources. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Although dated, this volume provides basic information about state depository systems, essential publications, legal and statistical publications, indexes, and nongovernmental sources. It also covers general works that contain information about all 50 states. It does not include U.S. territories.
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