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Society for Professional Journalists: Search Tips

Search Engines

USA.gov is a search engine that searches federal, state, and local government web sites. It offers an advantage over Google because commercial and personal web sites are eliminated from the search results. There is also an A to Z index of federal government agencies.


Use Google, Yahoo, or your favorite search engine to restrict your search to a particular domain. For example, if you only want to search the EPA web site, enter your search like this:

Alternatively, use the Advanced Search option, which can be found under the settings menu in Google or Yahoo:

Contacting Agencies

You may be accustomed to emailing contacts to ask questions or request information. While some agencies are very prompt in responding to emails, others are not, and you may need to pick up the telephone and call someone.

A general overview of the organization of the federal government can be found in the United States Government Manual.

The Hawaii Directory of State, County and Federal Officials lists contact information for local and federal officials in Hawai`i.

Online Availability

Federal government information is usually available online back to the late 1990s. In some cases, such as the Statistical Abstract of the United States, all of the historical data has been scanned and are online. However, in many cases, there has been no effort to digitize the older material.

Historical state and local government information is even less likely to be online. Frequently, state and local agencies are trying to conserve server space, so they only keep the most recent few years of data online. For example, Guam Bureau of Statistics and Plans offers data only back to 2007 or later. In addition, when web sites are redesigned, old content may be removed or buried. This is especially common when there is a change of government and new agency leaders redesign web sites to emphasize new initiatives or strategic directions.

Even recent publications may not be available online in full text. Those that are online may be in low resolution to save server space. Check out the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's wildlife viewing guides.

Political Jurisdiction

To complicate matters further, it can sometimes be difficult to determine which government agency is "in charge" of an area or issue. For example, let's look at invasive species. At the federal level, you might expect that invasive species generally would fall under the Fish and Wildlife Service. However, there are dozens of agencies whose mission includes invasive species. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey has a division that deals with plants and animals. Even the U.S. Army has an environmental command that engages in habitat restoration and invasive species removal on Army lands. Confused yet? Remember who inspects your luggage for forbidden plants and animals at the airport? That's right, it's the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And let's not forget the National Marine Fisheries Service, which deals with marine animals.

At the state level, a variety of agencies may also be at work keeping out invasive species or working to control or eradicate them. Here are some examples:

Hawai`i Invasive Species Committee (part of the Department of Land and Natural Resources) coordinates efforts across the Hawaiian Islands.

California has a long list of agencies and organizations that monitor and combat invaders.