HathiTrust Access to 1.4 Million+ U.S. Federal Documents

May 8, 2020

By HathiTrust Federal Documents Advisory Committee

Are you now faced with the difficult path of continuing your scholarly work remotely? Have a research question involving federal government information? Or just looking for interesting reading? During the current health emergency when many libraries are closed, HathiTrust’s U.S. Federal Documents Collection remains open for use, with resources addressing government response to pandemics throughout U.S. history.

What Can You Find in the Collection?

The HathiTrust U.S. federal documents collection is a “library at web scale,” digitized volumes of the print items held in research libraries. One of the largest sets of openly available U.S. federal publications on the web, our collection covers the full range of topics that intersect with the U.S. federal government. Wondering which questions have been included in the U.S. Census, going back to the first census in 1790?  Here is a document for that. Wondering about various imports to the U.S. in the 1800’s, including opium? We have that too. Or maybe you want to read the 9/11 Commission Report, the congressional hearing on the Titanic disaster, or a U.S. Navy cookbook, with recipes.

Our collection of digitized Congressional publications is likely the largest outside of the federal government and commercial providers. Some examples of the range of Congressional hearings in HathiTrust include the topics Record labeling (1985);  Russia : how Vladimir Putin rose to power and what America can expect (2000); Public safety and civil rights implications of state and local enforcement of federal immigration laws (2009); and U.S. Membership in the World Health Organization (1947).

Our digital collection is unique in that it also reflects the breadth and the “long tail” of what is held in research library collections. In particular, you can find a wide variety of Executive Branch (agency and department) publications. For example, the Department of Energy’s assessment of The Potential Climatic Effects of Increasing Carbon Dioxide (1985), NASA’s Commercial Development Plan for the International Space Station (1998), or the newsletter of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

If you’re looking for a diversion, try our Never A Dull Moment collection of fun finds that features both popular and offbeat federal publications. Included are cookbooks, travel, and language guides, theatrical performance scripts, and comic books, as well as the timely title Telecommuting: a 21st century solution to traffic jams and terrorism (2006).

A Historical Pandemic Perspective

HathiTrust is a source of rich historical context regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, documentation of federal government responses to epidemics from Avian Flu to H1N1; Congressional hearings regarding the medical supply chain, and the SARS threat;  serial publications from the Surgeon General tracking the Influenza outbreak of 1918; and more recent reports from the National Center for Infectious Diseases covering Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Using HathiTrust to Access U.S. Federal Publications

As government information librarians, we encourage anyone who has internet access to make use of this rich collection of federal publications in HathiTrust. You can access via browser or mobile device, and the Using the Digital Library help section or Information Sheet for Students offer general guidance. The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP)-hosted presentation Using the HathiTrust Fed Docs Collection also provides background.

HathiTrust offers both full-text and “catalog” search of the entire collection (17.4 million volumes, including documents). Almost all U.S. federal documents are in the public domain and available for reading and page download. If you are affiliated with a HathiTrust member institution you can log in with your university credentials to do all this, plus create collections of publications within HathiTrust and download public domain items.

Search Tips for HathiTrust U.S. Federal Documents

We have a number of suggestions for zeroing in on U.S. federal documents and tips for using the search capabilities of HathiTrust specifically for federal documents, based on front-line librarians’ experience:

  • Use the Author Facet The simplest way to find federal publications in the HathiTrust Digital Library is to perform any search, then use the author facet in the left-hand navigation bar to limit the results to a particular government agency, or to the U.S. Government Printing Office in general. One advantage to using the author facet is that state and federal agencies having the same name (such as “Department of Agriculture”) are easily distinguished.  The author search facet allows one to view federal materials without state or even foreign agency materials in the mix.  Or, choose a subject facet that includes the phrase “government publications” in some way, and add a few additional subjects for more highly refined results.
  • Understand Publishing Protocols Being aware of early 20th century government publishing protocols helps in interpreting HathiTrust’s search results.  Many federal agencies’ most important reports were issued in series with such prosaic titles as Bulletin, Circular and perhaps the most creatively-challenged one of all, Miscellaneous Publication.  If such titles show up in yourfull text search results, this could be a sign that you have uncovered some highly relevant material.  In series like these, each issue was structured like a full length book, focusing on a single topic in great depth.  For example, the 1913 document with the cover title Ten Hour Maximum Working-Day for Women and Young Persons is in HathiTrust under the title Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The take-away is that you might find some of the best material hidden under titles like “Bulletin.”  Don’t hesitate to click on them and search deeper into the text, if they do turn up in your full text search results.
  • Dig into the Statistics One of the common reasons for seeking government information is to obtain trustworthy statistics.  Most figures are presented in tables, but tables do not always read accurately in OCR. This can stymie a full text search. Instead, be like the librarians of yesteryear and simply consult the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Published annually from 1878-2012, it’s the most complete compendium for statistics from all the major federal agencies.  Although it presents only the statistics that were frequently requested, because each table is cited, one can use it as a starting place for tracking down the source agency’s own publications to find even more data.
  • A Tip on OCR Misreads When searching for words in the full text of 18th-century documents, try spelling words as if there is a medial “s,” which OCR software often misreads as the letter “f.”  To find information on horses, include the variant spelling horfes.  Similarly, you can try Congress or Congrefs, British or Britifh, commissioner or commiffioner, president or prefident, etc.
  • Know Your Stages from Your Stages One of the best full-text search tips applies not only to government documents but to all historical publications in HathiTrust.  Choose words and phrases that were commonly used during the desired time period.  For example, one may start with a search for the word “stagecoach” but upon viewing results, discover that it used to be written as two words — stage coach — and that it was often abbreviated as “stages” as in the sentence, “The steamboat line connects with stages and railroad cars running east to Chicago.”

HathiTrust U.S. Federal Documents Collections

Given that HathiTrust is huge, we’ve scoped some full-text searchable sets as starting points for you to discover U.S. federal documents in HathiTrust. These collections include all of the in-scope volumes digitized by our member libraries, and we continue to add to them and fill in gaps as new digitized items come in.

  • U.S. Federal Documents: The more than 1.4 million volumes in HathiTrust that have been identified as U.S. federal documents. A great place to start if you want a way to narrow your search at the beginning.
  • U.S. Congressional Serial Set: The Congressional Serial Set contains a wealth of information on any topic discussed by Congress over the course of the last 200+ years, a lot! This collection gathers all the digitized Serial Set materials that we have in one, searchable place.
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs publications: This collection includes publications on such topics as education, health care, art, environmental impact assessments, ethnographic studies, and government policies towards Native Americans over time.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publications: This collection contains materials produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as some predecessor offices. Topics include water quality studies, pollution abatement assessments, gas mileage, and environmental impact assessments.
  • Foreign Relations of the United States: Foreign Relations of the United States, produced by the Department of State, is a series that “presents the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity.”
  • Statistical Abstract of the United States: A complete set of Statistical Abstract of the United States volumes produced by the U.S. government between 1878 and 2012.
  • U.S. Civil Rights Commission: This collection gathers together publications produced by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, including annual reports, investigations of inequity including age and racial discrimination, and the text of hearings held around the country in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

HathiTrust’s U.S. Federal Documents collection is an outcome of many years of library investment in digitization and curation, and HathiTrust is committed not only to broad access, but also to digital preservation of these documents for the long term. We thank the many libraries who have contributed!

–HathiTrust Federal Documents Advisory Committee