News Reporting & Writing Research Resources: Public Records Searching

Public Records Searching

Overview

Journalists, activists, and consumers often need access to public records. The following list of public records by topic is not meant to be exhaustive, but represents starting points for finding public records using government and other free websites. In addition, links to .com search engines (some of which charge for some records) are provided, too.

Search Strategy

If you know which level of government (federal, state, local) is responsible for maintaining a particular public record, it is usually easy to search their website for the type of record and/or the agency or department, e.g., "public hearings," "birth certificates," "business licenses," "registrar," etc.

If you are unsure of the level of government that might have an interest in collecting data, consider searching USA.gov, which, while focused on the federal government, does provide a search engine that links to state and local agencies. 

You can also search Google to figure out where to look for public records by topic, and limit your search to government websites by adding site:.gov to your search terms.

Another option is to find published research or news on your topic and see where the researcher/journalist found their information by following their references or source information. Start with OneSearch on the Library website to search across multiple library databases, or go directly to specific databases by subject.

Government home pages/portals

Federal

  • USA.gov The United States government's official web portal. Also provides links to relevant state and local government websites. Also a good place to start if you're not sure which level and/or branch of government provides public records on a topic.

State

Local

Business and economics

Courts

  • Federal Courts links to the Supreme Court, U.S. Court of Appeals, District Courts, as well as Bankruptcy and Special Jurisdiction (military, tax, etc.)
  • California Courts links to the California Supreme, Appellate, and Superior Courts websites.
  • Los Angeles Superior Court includes links to some court documents, civil cases (lawsuits greater than $25,000); an index of criminal defendants, and if available, counts, current charges, disposition and disposition dates will be included; and Family Law Divorce Judgments. All of these documents must be requested and in most cases, minimal fees are charged for processing. Transcripts of court cases are not automatically available, and must be requested and paid for directly from the Court Reporters.

Criminal records

Demographics

Education

Environment and health

Government finance, budgets, economy

Housing, planning, zoning

Laws, legislation, and public hearings

Politics and elections

Public records search engines