Official Gazettes— Challenges to Access and Libraries’ Response

Despite their importance as primary sources documenting the actions of governing bodies, gazettes have been infrequently collected by all but the most robust research libraries committed to acquiring legal resources. Besides CRL, other major holders of gazettes in the United States include the Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Los Angeles County Law Library, and select academic law or general libraries with collection mandates for international and area studies.

U.S. bomb damage to Baath Party Headquarters in Damascus, Iraq, during Gulf War in 1998. U.S. Armed Forces ID 981221-O-0000M-002 (detail) link (accessed October 15, 2016)

In her 2005 article “Foreign Official Gazettes: Solving a Collection Conundrum,” 1 Beatrice Tice (Associate Dean at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law) characterized the many challenges of collecting gazettes. These include difficulties in locating suitable vendors, varying frequencies and sporadic receipt of issues, variable physical quality, and costs of acquisition and preservation. Tice also describes access challenges facing North American scholars: locating gazettes in library catalogs (with frequent title changes and multiple supplements); lack of useful indexing; sequential nature of publication hampering cross-reference and identification of legislative updates; and the lack of English translations.

The initial distribution of printed gazettes is often quite limited. They are frequently printed on poor quality, highly acidic paper; in many countries the lack of a suitable preservation infrastructure imperils these fragile resources. Additional challenges to access (and use) arise for gazettes published by authoritarian regimes and in unstable areas of the world. Distribution vagaries combined with a pervasive lack of accessibility of public records means that many gazettes are “at risk,” no longer available in the countries that produced them.

Today many governments publish this documentation directly to the web. Encouraged by intergovernmental organizations like the UN and the International Monetary Fund, governments worldwide are adopting “open data” policies, posting more information online than ever before. However, for the ten countries represented in CRL’s Open Web Repository for Civil Society Documentation, CRL found numerous cases in which accessibility of information was inconsistent, unreliable or non-existent.

CRL’s investigation findings include:

  • Many government websites offer little official documentation for public access, either because of limited transparency and/or a lack of reliable technical infrastructure. Seven of the ten countries reviewed had discoverable websites that referenced their official gazette. Three countries (Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe) did not present gazettes at all on discoverable sites. Two countries—Iran and Mozambique—provided access to laws through searchable text databases instead of faithful electronic facsimiles of the official printed gazette. Mozambique’s database is not publicly accessible, but rather offered through an expensive subscription- based database service (generally marketed to law firms and individual subscribers in country).
  • Five countries (out of the ten) presented links to basic PDF facsimiles of their current printed gazettes.
  • The availability of backfiles was highly variable (generally, no further back than 2006, but some countries offered only a few years). Only two out of the ten countries provide deep retrospective access to their historical gazettes: Algeria (French and Arabic editions dating back to 1962), and Morocco (English and Arabic versions dating back to 1912).
  • CRL encountered numerous missing or corrupt digital files on publicly accessible sites. Links frequently were broken, requiring extensive trial and error to determine whether the issue was still available elsewhere on the government server or, in fact, lacking.

Certain gazettes were digitized by external third parties. Sudan’s gazette, for instance, was scanned by Durham University (United Kingdom) for the years 1899– 1975. Iraq’s gazette (English-language edition) was scanned by the Law Library Microform Consortium (LLMC) for 1931–1984. CRL found evidence of other efforts by governments or third parties to make digitized gazettes available, but in most cases the content no longer appeared online.

When the interests and priorities of governments change, finding “historical” information about previous administrations often becomes problematic. As with some print era documentation, government web content is rarely maintained as regimes change. Studies have shown that documentation on government websites in Iraq, Morocco, Libya, and even the United States is withdrawn or revised to suit the interests of the regime. For example, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) website in Iraq is no longer accessible online. Gone with it are the records of the gazette published by the CPA for the years 2003–2006, as are Iraqi government websites developed prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Global Justice Project: Iraq claimed to have digitized the Iraq gazette in full text from 1982–2002. However, only scattered issues were actually found on the site.

The Global Legal Information Network (GLIN), hosted by the Law Library of Congress, claimed to have digitized gazettes from numerous countries (including CRL-targeted countries Iraq, Morocco, and Mozambique).2 However, GLIN’s database was shut down in 2012, and prospects for its restoration now appear to be limited. For the current project, CRL and LLMC successfully negotiated with the Library of Congress to receive digital copies of the official gazettes from GLIN files. However, on inspection CRL found that the files for most countries included only limited portions of the gazettes (i.e., select pages containing individual laws), rather than the complete publications.3

Reliance on library print holdings might appear to be the best recourse for procuring copies of gazettes from many countries. However, even these are not always easily identified or accessible. While the Library of Congress continues to collect gazettes in print, obtaining access to this material beyond LC’s premises remains limited. In a particularly notable case, CRL found that copies of the Iraq Gazette (al-Waqai` al-`Iraqiyah) ( ةيقارعلا عئاقولا ) from 1990–1999 were unavailable in North America or in Europe due to the embargo of material coming from Iraq during the Gulf War.

Official Gazette of Iraq, June 17, 2003. From Global Justice Project: Iraq. S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah.

It was only through extensive investigation—and the able assistance of Middle East librarians participating in CRL’s Middle East Materials Project (MEMP)—that CRL was able to identify a book dealer who could procure copies of the gazette for CRL. CRL acquired these scarce volumes from a book market in Baghdad and scanned them for the project. This may be the first instance in which the Iraqi gazette from this time period has been accessible to scholars and the public.

The threat to obtaining documentation produced in regions with unstable, nontransparent, and corrupt governments is credible and tangible. Historically, research libraries have played a key role in ensuring that such government records and publications remain intact and available for the long term. U.S. and Canadian libraries have served as independent repositories, preserving and collecting important paper records and publications of domestic and foreign governments. Given the scarcity of resources for preservation today, libraries must focus on what is known to be at risk and what is not likely to be adequately preserved by other actors, public sector or private.

Yet, few libraries today preserve records and documents produced by governments in conflict zones or unstable areas, and materials produced by corrupt and/or nontransparent governments abroad are likely to be lost if not independently harvested and archived. Libraries and archives must engage in deeper, strategic partnerships with civil society institutions in unstable regions to ensure that documentation is collected and retained in-country. At the same time, libraries and archives need to expand accessibility through cooperative digital efforts with institutions that possess the resources and technical expertise to ensure the preservation and access to these critical materials.


  1. Law Library Journal, v. 97, no. 2 (2005). pp. 299–321.
  2. “Official Gazettes: Afghanistan to Zimbabwe,” In Custodia Legis blog of the Law Librarians of Congress, 2010. (Accessed 10/31/2016).
  3. The exception, thankfully, was the availability of full issues of the Iraq gazette covering 1970–1989. This content was ingested into CRL’s open web repository as well as into LLMC-Digital.