There are a number of ways that you can receive government records. The easiest method is to access an agency's online “reading room” which provides free access to certain government documents. If you can't get what you want through a reading room, you should carefully consider how (and in what form) you want the responding agency to provide the documents to you.
Before you jump into filing a FOIA request, however, you should spend some time researching which agency or agencies have the records you want. There is no central depository for federal government information, and each agency has its own office for handling FOIA requests. This can make your search rather difficult, but there are a number of resources that may help you in determining which federal entities are likely to have the information you seek:
- The United States Government Manual contains a list of federal agencies and a brief description of their functions. The Manual also contains the addresses and telephone numbers for each agency.
- Online Directories to Government Information provide information on which agencies have responsibility for various subject areas.
- The Library of Congress provides links to congressional committees, publications, and other information. While Congress is not subject to FOIA, the Library of Congress has extensive records on many government agencies.
- The National Archives and Records Administration contains extensive records from across the federal government, including the historical records of federal agencies, congressional bodies, and courts.
Online Reading Rooms
FOIA requires that all federal agencies maintain online reading rooms that provide electronic versions of their regulations, policy statements, and records. Reading rooms are the easiest method of obtaining certain types of government information, because accessing them requires only a few clicks on an agency’s website. Therefore, you should always start by checking to see if the records you are seeking are already available in the reading room. This will save you the time, energy and money of making a FOIA request or otherwise attempting to get information. The type and amount of information available in the reading rooms vary greatly by agency, but many include a number of useful records.
If you can't find the agency's online reading room from their homepage, try searching for “(agency name) reading room” (most agency web sites have a section labeled specifically as a “reading room,” so you should be able to find it with a simple online search). It can also be helpful to run the same search at FirstGovSearch.gov, the U.S. Government Printing Office’s online directory of government information.
Here is a list of online reading rooms for some of the government’s most visible agencies and offices:
- The Department of Justice
- Central Intelligence Agency
- Internal Revenue Service
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- U.S. Department of State
- Office of the Attorney General
Other Means of Getting Records
If you can't find the records you are seeking in the agency's reading room, then you will need to request the records informally or file a FOIA request. See the section on Requesting Records Under FOIA in this guide for more information.
In your request you can ask to receive either an electronic copy or a physical copy of the records. If the records already exist in the form that you request them in, then the agency must generally provide the records in your preferred form. However, if you request an electronic copy of records that only exist in paper form, then the agency must only provide you with an electronic copy if it is reasonably able to do so, meaning that the record is "readily reproducible" in the alternate format. If you would prefer a certain type of electronic format, the agency need only provide the records in that specific format if it is reasonably able to do so. See 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(3)(B).
Depending on the agency, physical copies of records may usually be mailed or faxed to you, while electronic copies of records may either be e-mailed to you or sent to you on a CD-ROM or other disk drive. Because of the various ways you can receive the records, it is very important that you specify your preferred method when you initially file your request.