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Discovery DiscoveryFebruary 2000
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On the Web Good Government Information



Uncle Sam Webster by Jan Zauha

"That government is best which governs least"-and provides the most information. This is probably not what Thoreau had in mind in "Civil Disobedience," but it's a revision that works well from the librarian's point of view. One measure of big government's worth today is the quality of its Web presence. Amidst the continued proliferation of worthless Web sites, those from U.S. federal agencies stand out, prized for their content and ease of use.

Could the same folks who brought us the federal tax code possibly provide useful information? Generally, yes. To enjoy a smorgasbord of satisfying government information, start with a visit to the White House Fact Sheet titled Twenty Things You Can Do and Learn on U.S. Government Web Sites". A quick glance should convince you that your tax dollars have been put to work profitably here, helping you buy a home, plan for retirement, download a passport application, and much more.

Another familiar source of information that reflects the wide range of government interests is the Federal Consumer Information Center. Associated with Pueblo, Colorado since its inception in 1970, the FCIC's virtual version of its Consumer Catalog provides instant free texts of publications such as "Buying a Computer," "Making Healthy Food Choices," and "Facts About Anxiety Disorders." Should you wish, you can also relive the '70s by viewing FCIC television ads from that decade and others. Remember the days when you were urged to "learn the happy facts and be a happier you"?

For more happy facts, and some not-so-happy, see FedStats, a clearinghouse for quick links to government information. Explore the A to Z listing of topics from more than 70 federal agencies, including statistics on tobacco use, HIV/AIDS, consumer credit rates, faculty salaries, gasoline prices, and more. Access a quick profile of Montana as a state or county by county, including statistics on field crops, demographics, businesses, crimes, and energy consumption. This gateway site is easy to use and very current.

Individual government sites also yield useful information. As the campaign trail gets warmer, a visit to the Federal Election Commission's Web site helps you register to vote and understand tangled issues like campaign finance. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office offers a free searchable database for patents from 1976 to the present, including graphics, abstracts, citations, claims, and descriptions. The National Center for Education Statistics [nces.ed.gov] gives an extensive report on "The Condition of Education," as well as statistics and projections.

You will still find some less-than-helpful federal sites. Not all government information is free: no matter how you click, you will not get the full text of an NTIS publication without paying for it. Some federal sites are poorly designed: "The Digital Daily" from the IRS tries so hard to make taxes look fun that the forms are hidden beneath piles of friendly glitz.

For help locating more government information, call or stop in at the Renne Library reference desk. If you find Web sites that you think might be of interest to the MSU community, please send me an e-mail message at alijz@montana.edu. Jan Zauha is a reference librarian and the Electronic Information Coordinator for the MSU Libraries.


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