Home » post » Guide of the Week: Declassified Documents

Our mission

Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Guide of the Week: Declassified Documents

One of the harder to find classes of government documents are declassified documents. In many cases these are not within the scope of the Federal Depository Library Program, so there isn’t a centralized place to find them. Sometimes they’re not actual publications, but stuff like memos, celebrity FBI files and the like. If you’re researching public policy, especially national security, stuff that might be helpful might be declassified or subject to declassification under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But before you start filing that FOIA request, check out today’s Guide of the Week from the ALA GODORT Handout Exchange, because what you want might already be out there:

Declassified Government Documents (UC-Berkeley, 2004) CC Last updated 9/15/2006

I really like how this guide starts out. Because the Berkeley librarians understand that declassified documents are a misty topic to most people, they start with an introduction:

About Declassified Documents

Documents may be classified for many reasons – issues of national security or privacy. A popular misconception is that when a document is declassified, it is somehow systematically made available to the public, for example, distributed to depository libraries. This is most often not the case. Exceptions to this might be

  • a highly-publicized document is published as a part of an investigation. E.g. The Munson Report, a report from the fall of 1941 stemming from an intelligence gathering investigation on the loyalty of Japanese Americans is one of these exceptions. It was declassified and published as one of the many appendices in the Hearings held by the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack in 1946.
  • a document series that is specifically published by the government for researchers (e.g. Foreign Relations of the U.S. or the Library of Congress Presidential Papers collections).

As there are no clear patterns of publication for most declassified documents, it falls to the researcher interested in a document that is declassified to research which agency created the document, who may have researched the document originally, and where it might be now. The guides and resources shown below are intended to assist the research in finding federal records that have been declassified as part of the routine declassification, as well as records that are declassified through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests and other kinds of investigations.

After this intro, they have additional material about the declassification process and FOIA. Then they talk about resources including:

There are a lot more. See http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/doemoff/govinfo/federal/gov_decldoc.html for details. Then check out what other subject guides are available. And if you’re a docs librarian with a handout of your own, link it to the wiki!.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

1 Comment

  1. First, federal agencies by law must maintain FOIA reading rooms. If you know which agency produced the document or just want to browse, then you can try looking there. Generally, agencies provide little more than a title list linked to full-text pdf.

    Second, declassification is a routine house-keeping activity and not always in response to FOIA requests… which means that not all declassified documents are announced in FOIA Reading Rooms. Unfortunately, there is no centralized U.S. registry or authority that manages declassified information….and there’s little coordination among agencies or within them. For example, the Defense Technical Information Center just received about 200 CHECO Vietnam Lessons Learned reports that were recently declassified under the authority of the U.S. Air Force History Office in D.C. DTIC will digitize the documents and make them available to the Public. However, our research shows that some of these were declassified almost 10 years earlier by a different Air Force office…but who knew!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.