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Finding Primary Sources for Historical Research: Gov Docs / Laws

How to find primary sources for historical topics

Finding the Original Text of Federal Laws

When public laws are passed by Congress, they are first published in paper form and are known as "slip laws." After a session of Congress is finished, these slip laws are republished in a bound volume format, along with private laws, concurrent resolutions passed by Congress, and presidential proclamations. These volumes are known as the Statutes at Large.

The last step for a public law is the United States Code, which compiles active laws by subject. It does not include private laws. The USCis updated every six years, with supplements in intervening years. Because information in the USC is updated to reflect later changes and amendments to laws, it does not necessarily reflect a law as originally passed. For the original text of federal public laws, use the Statutes at Large.

Using the Statutes at Large

To find a law in the Statutes at Large, use the law's Statutes at Large citation. An example of such a citation is 78 STAT. 241. The first number in the citation refers to the volume and the second number refers to the page. The volume number does not coincide with the session of Congress that passed the laws contained in the volume. In this example, volume 78 contains laws passed by the 88th Congress.

If you do not have a citation for the law, choose the Statutes at Large volume that contains the year the law was passed, and look in the subject index at the back of the volume for either the name of the law or, if there is no formal name, for the subject that you need. The page number on which the information begins is listed. Depending on the year, you might search the LexisNexis Congressional database (see below) for the citation, or you might even find the citation on the Web.

In addition to the text of the law, the Statutes at Large shows the public law number, the date the law was enacted, the original number of the bill that created the law, the United States Code citation(s) where the law will be placed, and the legislative history of the law. In volumes prior to 1975, the legislative history is found in a table at the back of each volume; from 1975 forward, the history appears at the end of each law.

Andersen Library's Statutes at Large are located as follows:

  • 1984-2009: Federal Documents Stacks (main floor), call number AE 2.111:
  • 1964-1983: Federal Documents Stacks, call number GS 4.111:
  • 1789-1963: Reference Microform (main floor, ask at Reference Desk), call number GS 4.111:
  • 1789-1875: also available online through the Library of Congress's American Memory site

Full text of some public laws from 1903 to the present can also be found online in the ProQuest Congressional Publications database. Follow these steps:

  1. Open ProQuest Congressional Publications - .
  2. Click Advanced Search
  3. Under Document Types, deselect all collections, and then check Bills & Laws, 1789-present [NOTE: The LIbrary does not have access to years prior to 1903.]
  4. Search by keyword.

The legislative history of a public law back to the 91st Congress (1969/1970) can also be found in the ProQuest Congressional Publications database. The legislative history will contain the Statutes at Large citation for the law, which can then be used to find the text of the law in the correct print volume, or, for more recent laws, in the database. Follow these steps:

  1. Open ProQuest Congressional Publications - .
  2. Click Advanced Search
  3. Under Document Types, deselect all collections, and then check Legislative Histories, 1969-present
  4. Search by keyword.

For assistance, contact a reference librarian.

Finding Government Documents

Government documents, such as census data, public records, statistics, and laws can be good sources of primary information. Andersen Library is a selective depository for U.S. and Wisconsin documents, and also has small collections of titles from international governmental organizations. More information on the types of documents received by the Library and an explanation of their classification systems can be found here.

How to find government publications depends upon the date of the document you are looking for:

  • To find government documents from 1976-present available in the Library, as well as a select number of older documents, use Research@UWW, the Library's online catalog.
  • To find federal government publications prior to 1976, you will often need to use the print index, Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications . Print volumes of the Catalog are available in the Library from 1936-June 1976. This index includes bibliographic information important for finding a document, such as title, issuing agency, and SuDocs classification number. Ask a reference librarian for help in locating these volumes.
  • To find information on federal government publications prior to 1936, try the Document Catalogue, available from March 4, 1893 through December 31, 1938. Ask a reference librarian for help in locating these volumes.
  • To find publications created by federal agencies from July 1976 to the present--including links to full text when available--use the online Catalog of U.S. Government Publications.

Documents not owned by the Library might be available through UW Request or interlibrary loan. For local government records, try the Library's Area Research Center.

In addition, certain federal government publications, such as Supreme Court opinions, are found using resources other than those listed above. For assistance in finding government documents, contact a reference librarian.

Online Government Documents

Government documents, such as census data, public records, statistics, and laws can be good sources of primary information. Many government documents can be found online through databases or freely available on websites. Always determine that an online resource is reputable before using an online document in your research paper. For information on finding government documents in Andersen Library, see the "Finding Government Documents" box on this page.


ProQuest Congressional Publications
Use Advanced Search. Includes legislative histories for public laws and testimony from congressional hearings. Track bills and search the Congressional Record and Federal Register. Also includes the U.S. Serial Digital Collection, 1789-1969: House and Senate documents and reports, Senate executive reports, and Senate treaty documents.