Business Research Workshop for the Labor Outreach Committee of OWS

On December 1, a few members of Rad Ref conducted a business research workshop for the Labor Outreach Committee of Occupy Wall Street. This is expected to be the first in a series, so stay tuned for more research resources in the coming year!

This page represents the introduction to the workshop, and four more sections plus a resource guide follow (links are also at the bottom of the page):

At the beginning of the workshop, we asked the participants two questions:

When you're doing research, where do you start?

When you're doing research, what are some roadblocks that you hit?

The Research Process

Planning and managing the research process

Tip: When estimating your research timeline and project plan, build in time for both searching and analyzing information. When searching and reading, track your efforts in a shared research log in Google Docs so you are not duplicating efforts.

What can you get free? What are the different levels of access?

What's not free, but still accessible?

Access to Research Collections

Public libraries

College and University Libraries

MaRLI (Manhattan Research Library Initiative)

"Any New York Public Library cardholder in good standing who lives, works or attends school in New York State is eligible to participate in a new library service that offers an unprecedented level of access to our collections. The Manhattan Research Libraries Initiative (MaRLI) offers approved NYPL cardholders the ability to borrow select research library material for at-home use for the first time ever. Additionally, MaRLI participants will be granted access to select materials owned by Columbia University and NYU." (from the MaRLI website)

Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP)

Depending on what you want to do, you may wish to contact the library to ask what resources are available to gov doc researchers. Access to computers, online resources, and the regular collections may vary depending on that library's policy.

Open Access Research Collections

More OA Collections

Research Help/Allies

Research Ethics and Intellectual Property

DIY FOIA Requests

The Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act, commonly known as FOIA, was enacted by Congress in 1966 to give the American public greater access to the federal government's records. The Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 expanded the scope of the FOIA to encompass electronic records and require the creation of "electronic reading rooms" to make records more easily and widely available to the public.


FOIA applies to all 15 departments (Education, Homeland Security, etc.) and 73 other federal agencies (Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Reserve System) in the executive branch of the U.S. government. It does not apply to the president, Congress, or the courts. It does not apply to state governments (though each of the 50 states has its own freedom-of-information laws, as do many cities; see New York State procedures).

Three Basic Steps

Most FOIA requests must be submitted in writing, although some agencies now allow for electronically submitted requests. You will likely need to contact multiple agencies (see Step 2), so it's a good idea to create a request template that you can customize as needed. In your template, list the following information:

Because there is no central repository for federal records, you'll need to have a good idea about where the information is located before you can file a FOIA request. To start, review the contact information for of all the federal agencies that regularly field FOIA requests (see the link in the Resource section below). If you know that you're looking for information on a military program, for instance, check the listings for the various agencies listed under Department of Defense. You might need to contact several to obtain the records you'd like. If possible, telephone the FOIA POC prior to filing your request to make sure that they are an appropriate agency.

Take a look at the sample letter attached at the bottom of this page for further inspiration.

The Small Print

Agencies are allowed to charge for research and productions services. Your FOIA request should specify the amount of FOIA fees you are willing to pay. One way around this is to file a request as a researcher or journalist, if applicable - fees are typically waived, or only charged for duplication for educational institutions, representatives of the news media and non-commercial scientific institutions.

Once the right agency (or component of an agency) has received a complete and perfected request, it has 20 working days to respond with its determination of whether to grant the request. If information is denied in full or in part, the agency must give the reasons for the denial by this deadline. If granted, it does not have to deliver the applicable documents within the timeframe, but must do so promptly thereafter.

A lot of times, agencies will encourage you to be as specific as possible when filing a request. And although you do want to give the institutions as much guidance as possible on the documents you're requesting, also be aware that too much specificity can give them a way not to file your request. For example, requesting from Tuscon's school board information about book banning can be denied because books weren't banned, they were boxed up and moved.

Other Resources

Question from a participant: Is there a single database of FOIA requests?

No, the records management of each agency would handle their relevant requests. And once the FOIA request is filled, that doesn't mean the data becomes publicly available; it just goes straight to the person who made the request.

FOIA sample letter.pdf37.73 KB

Case Studies

Case Study #1: Wendy's (a publicly-traded corporation)

Case Study #2: Koch Industries (a private corporation)

Question from a participant: How can you find out who they're donating to besides the politicians? Try searching for news articles, reports from organizations that work on various issues. Strategies for working with long text documents - do CTRL-F (or Command-F on a Mac) to jump directly to relevant keywords such as "donor," "contribute," forms of the verb "donate," etc. Also use those keywords with the name of your target in periodical database searches for news articles.

Case Study #3: The Chamber of Commerce

Resources for Strategic Research

This is our all-encompassing resource sheet, with a printable PDF version attached below.

Getting Started

Company/Organizational and Industry Information

Financial and Market Data

Politics and Elections

Business News and Analysis

Administrative/Regulatory and Public Records

Law and Legislation

Subscription Databases

Libraries Open to the Public

resources for strategic research.pdf109.02 KB