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The Business of Search

If you have something but you can’t find it, you don’t have it. (ARC Identifier 4492629)

Composing a successful FOIA request can be tricky. Agencies are responsible for a mind-boggling amount of information, and finding a record amid years and years of accumulated documents can feel like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack (though some requesters and agency professionals would probably argue that the haystack searcher’s task is the easier of the two).

We have worked on a few requests for assistance recently that deal with the challenges of search. Federal courts have long settled that in regard to a search for documents, the crucial issue is whether an agency conducted an adequate search for a document, not whether a document might exist. So, if you are a FOIA requester, how can you help an agency look for the records you seek?

  1.  Be as specific as possible, especially with regard to older records. Remember that historical records may predate an agency’s electronic search tools, meaning that those tasked with searching may have to search for records by hand — help them out by providing information like a date range, a title, and any other relevant information.
  2. Get to know how the agency keeps its records (or doesn’t). The FBI makes its file classification list available on its website. Consider how the records you seek might fit in to such a schema, and direct the agency to search specific files when you can. You may also wish to consult the agency’s records control schedule – you may find that it has disposed of the older records you seek or has sent them to the National Archives and Records Administration if they are permanently valuable.
  3. Remember that not all agencies take a centralized approach to processing FOIA requests. If you are interested in records related to a specific branch or location, look at the agency’s website to see if you should direct your request there rather than to the agency’s headquarters. Often this information is in an agency’s FOIA regulation.

Above all, if you are not sure how to compose your FOIA request to help the agency better find what you are looking for, ask! FOIA Public Liaisons are available to help with this type of question (you can access a list of FPLs and their contact information on FOIA.gov). Of course, OGIS is also available to help.