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The Source Documents Behind the News (A librarian reads the news...)

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Tricks of the trade: research strategies for current political topics

Idea – by me

I thought I’d step back for a minute and talk a little bit about the strategies behind my recent work to find the source documents behind the news. If you’re a librarian or you make this kind of research a regular part of your life in some way, you probably know all this stuff and can probably give me awesome pointers for improvement (which I welcome!). If you haven’t done this stuff but would like to, here are some relatively simple strategies that I’m employing and that you can totally do too.

1) Use sources to find sources

Typing words into a search box might land you on what you need to know, but more often than not it’ll be insufficient or inefficient. Instead, I usually start by finding “pointing sources” that point me to the original sources. For my recent obsession with current events, here are the pointing sources I’ve used most often:

  • News reporting (yeah, yeah, I know, you can’t trust the news… but…)
    Unlike journalists, I don’t have access to meetings, briefings, long histories of covering a particular topic, and all the relationships journalists cultivate over time. So if I hear of a bill but can’t find it (because most state legislature websites are less than ideal, as are most government agency websites), I start with reporting on the topic in hopes of finding a bill sponsor’s name or keywords that might appear in the bill or (in rare instances) even a full citation. Then I can take that and go back to the less-than-ideal website and hunt with more chances of success. And when the less-than-ideal website really doesn’t function well at all (or maybe the FEC’s site search appears to be completely broken for things older than about 2007…) I use Google’s “search within site or domain” feature (available in advanced search or by typing site:[url part] at the end of your search) and/or other search operators to get around the less-than-ideal website’s crummy navigation and internal search options.
  • Citations
    Finding a report or study or even just a chart that cites its sources is probably the single best way to figure out who’s collecting, recording, and/or publishing the stuff you’re looking for. I’ve been using this especially for times when I see a chart that lays out, say, health care premiums by year, and then I go to the department cited as the originator of that data to see if they have more detailed information available, like premiums broken down by employer-provided vs government-provided vs personal plans. (This is also a good way to deal with uncertainty about the biases of whatever group or person authored the report or chart.)
  • Specialized search tools
    I have easy access to the paid resources of a pretty great library, and for my current obsession with political topics ProQuest Congressional, ProQuest Legislative Insight, and ProQuest Statistical Insight have been my go-to places of late. Then there are free tools like Congress.gov, FederalRegister.gov, Regulations.gov, Govtrack.us, Project Vote Smart,  and Follow the Money. And for information that may have been on the web at one point but isn’t any more, there’s the Way Back Machine (and its handy Chrome extension) or Google cache search.
  • Specialized People
    I consult with fellow librarians and other specialists all the time. A special shout-out to my colleague and GovDocs librarian Danya Leebaw! She has very kindly helped me think through where different official documents may or may not have been published, pointed me toward tools she uses all the time but that I had never touched before (like, a quarter of the tools I listed in the previous bullet point…), and generally been awesome as usual.

2) Don’t trust anything the first time

I’m not even talking about out-and-out fake news, here, though definitely be on the lookout for that from all quarters. I’m talking about real life lived among humans. There are plenty of reasons that the source you consult may not give you the whole or correct story:

  • Mistakes happen, even from the best sources, so don’t stop with the easiest source and assume it’s correct.
    Especially with current events topics, this can be especially true for a few reasons. The source documents are often very long and very complex, and it’s not unusual to find that the reporting on a document either didn’t provide all the information you needed from that document or (sometimes) even incorrectly interpreted it. Sometimes it’s just a typo, like when the White House version of an Executive Order mentioned a law that doesn’t exist, but the Federal Register version (more official) had everything right. But more often it’s a case of high-stakes telephone where one source reports on a document and then subsequent sources point to the first reporting source rather than going back to the primary document.
  • Facts are facts, but nobody pays attention to or presents all facts all the time.
    I don’t mean that people are deliberately hiding facts, necessarily, though sometimes it’s prudent to assume they are. But even without any attempt to hide anything, we’re all humans with limited time, attention, and memory. So if the humans you expected to have certain facts don’t, try different humans.
  • Facts generally need context.
    Sometimes kneeling on an Oval Office couch isn’t that big of a deal.
  • Projections and forecasts are not facts, so watch the methodologies.
    A recent op ed sheds some light on the vagaries of government forecasts for economic growth, for example.

3) Not all sources are available, and certainly not all are available online

I’ve started compiling a list of topics I’d love to find sources for but know that I probably can’t, or can’t yet. I’ve set myself the limit of finding things that are published, which automatically leaves out several categories of knowable things:

  • Private companies generally don’t have to tell you about their businesses
  • Tons of interesting stuff is classified or otherwise secret
  • Tons of non-secret stuff is simply not published, or not published publicly. I’ve been surprised by things like Congressional Research Service reports not being published except by 3rd parties, or Congressional hearings not being published for years, and that’s just the stuff that I figured should be publicly available.
  • Of the stuff that is published, lots of it is simply not accessible for my purposes. Sometimes it’s behind paywalls (I’m trying not to include those sources here), and often it’s just not digitally available at all.

Unfortunately, the hardest thing to do is prove that something doesn’t exist. This is where I circle back to Step 1 with special emphasis on consulting experts.

Official Reports on Police Brutality in Chicago and Ferguson: The source documents behind the news

The Primary Source Crusader (my own mashup of images)

Did you know that these reports that were referenced in today’s news are available to the public? I didn’t. But they are.

For each of the two major reports talked about recently, the Department of Justice put out a press release that links to the full report plus fact sheets and other supplemental material:

[update 3/1/2017] In addition, you can see the full list of cases on this topic from 1997 to the present in the Department of Justice’s report “The Civil Rights Division’s Pattern and Practice Police Reform Work: 1994-Present” starting at page 41 (Published January 4th, 2017). Searching for the name of the police department and then adding site:justice.gov should land you on the investigative reports for those cases.

These reports cite case law heavily, and not every case is available for free to the public. Searching Google for a case name is usually a good way to go, in this case, since various people may upload copies of rulings. You can also use the filetype:pdf syntax at the end of your search if you’re trying to weed out people just talking about the ruling and really want to see if there’s a PDF of the ruling out there for the viewing. Justia and RECAP are two other places to look, and Google Scholar has a “case law” option just under its main search box that may lead you to useful results. (And if you have access to LexisNexis through work or a library, that’s an obvious choice, too.)

New Immigration Policies: The source documents behind the news

The Primary Source Crusader (my own mashup of images)

Recent actions and policies surrounding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) (all housed under the Department of Homeland Security), have caused a flurry of news. This week’s policy memos are dense and make numerous references to published law, some of which is on the obscure side. So for this post I gathered not only the documents themselves but also the sources referred to in those documents.

If this is a topic that matters a lot to you, I recommend going into the source law whenever it’s referenced because many clauses there refer to other clauses in the law, building in clarifications or exceptions. I’ve included one such instance in the detailed sources below, but after initially trying to do this for all the references I realized that a blog post wasn’t the best place to do that kind of multi-level reference in every case. So I’ll just say here that every reference is more complicated than it looks at first, especially if you (like me) aren’t used to reading laws.

First, some context

Round-up of Updates (section added 3/20/2017)

Memorandum: Implementing the President’s Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvement Policies

The full memo from John Kelly, DHS Secretary, dated February 20th, 2017.

Broadly, this memo ends various ICE and CBP policies that Secretary Kelly calls “catch-and-release,” and it emphasizes that, in general, deportation is the law and any exceptions must be made on a case-by-case basis rather than on the basis of “pre-determined categories.”

Here are links to the sources or programs referenced in this memo:

  • This memorandum provides guidance on implementing the Executive Order “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” issued by the President on January 25, 2017. In general, the provisions in the memo were all ordered by that executive order.
  • There aren’t enough resources to deport everyone immediately, so “as the Department works to expand detention capabilities […] detention resources should be prioritized based upon potential danger and risk of flight if an individual alien is not detained, and parole determinations will be made in accordance with current regulations and guidance. See 8 C.F.R. §§ 212.5, 235.3.”
  • The memo tells the Director of ICE to enter into 287(g) agreements with all willing and qualified jurisdictions, thereby using local law enforcement to perform the functions of immigration officers. The Executive Order “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” says that states not willing to enter into these agreements would lose access to most Federal grants (see paragraph 29)
  • Secretary Kelly directs the Under Secretary for Management to locate sources of funding to build a border wall, saying, “Congress has authorized the construction of physical barriers and roads at the border to prevent illegal immigration in several statutory provisions, including section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 [page 555-556], as amended, 8 U.S.C. § 1103 note.” [Once you get to Section 1103, search for the section “Improvement of Barriers at Border” down in the notes area. And as an aside, this provision was the subject of a Hearing in 2008.]
  • In the “expedited removal” section, citing Section 235(b)(l)(A)(iii)(I), the wording from the law that makes certain removal decisions “unreviewable” is: “(I) In general.-Subject to subclause (III), if the officer determines that an alien does not have a credible fear of persecution, the officer shall order the alien removed from the United States without further hearing or review.” Subclause (III) then says “(III) Review of determination.-The Attorney General shall provide by regulation and upon the alien’s request for prompt review by an immigration judge of a determination under subclause (I) that the alien does not have a credible fear of persecution. Such review shall include an opportunity for the alien to be heard and questioned by the immigration judge, either in person or by telephonic or video connection. Review shall be concluded as expeditiously as possible, to the maximum extent practicable within 24 hours, but in no case later than 7 days after the date of the determination under subclause (I).”
  • Unaccompanied alien children are defined in a different section of the law: 6 U.S.C. § 279(g)(2) [Here’s just the relevant wording]. In making policy about unaccompanied alien children, this memo makes reference to:
  • The Department will publish in the Federal Register a new Notice Designating Aliens Subject to Expedited Removal sometime soon (I’ll link to it when it is published).

You may have heard that Mexico isn’t pleased with the part of this memo that says it will deport anyone crossing the Mexico/U.S. border back to Mexico, regardless of whether the person is a Mexican national. Here’s the section of the memo that says that:  “Section 235(b)(2)(C) of the INA [here are the relevant words] authorizes the Department to return aliens arriving on land from a foreign territory contiguous to the United States, to the territory from which they arrived.” Secretary Kelly emphasizes that this applies to children as well, “subject to the requirements of section 1232, Title 8, United States Code.”

Memorandum: Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest

The full memo from John Kelly, DHS Secretary, dated February 20th, 2017.

Broadly, this memo provides similar guidance to the other memo, emphasizing that deportation is the general rule with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis, laying out near-term priorities, etc. The main difference between the memos is that the first deals directly with border locations and the second deals with the nation’s interior.

Here are links to the sources or programs referenced in this memo:


Two caveats: 1) Not all knowable things are knowable using official, original published sources, but that’s the limit I’ve set for myself even when that’s inconvenient or frustrating, and 2) I am a librarian trained in tracking down and evaluating sources — nothing more or less than that. I’m doing my best to find the most authoritative version of the primary sources behind the news, and I welcome suggestions and corrections. If you or someone you know would like to add to my collection of primary sources, please let me know.

Transgender people, bathrooms, and this week’s news: The source documents behind the news

The Primary Source Crusader (my own mashup of images)

If you, like me, were expecting something more rule-like or law-like to be behind the reports of Trump rescinding Obama’s guidance on transgender bathroom use in schools, you (like me) probably went to the wrong places to find the actual documents. As it turns out, these are jointly release “dear colleague” letters sent by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to schools across the nation. Their purpose is to provide guidance interpreting Title IX, sometimes also cited as 20 U.S.C. Chapter 38.

Since the Trump administration has said that this issue is now a States Rights issue, I expect there will be state-by-state actions before long.

The DoJ has also sent a letter to the Supreme Court alerting them to this chance, since there’s a case before them right now that hinges on transgender status under Title IX. [Update 3/6/2017: The Supreme Court has sent the case back to the lower courts in light of the new guidance on transgender status under Title IX.)


Two caveats: 1) Not all knowable things are knowable using official, original published sources, but that’s the limit I’ve set for myself even when that’s inconvenient or frustrating, and 2) I am a librarian trained in tracking down and evaluating sources — nothing more or less than that. I’m doing my best to find the most authoritative version of the primary sources behind the news, and I welcome suggestions and corrections. If you or someone you know would like to add to my collection of primary sources, please let me know.