In the U.S., many records that a government agency creates are required by law to be made available to the public.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) pertains to the executive branch of the federal government.
The Presidential Records Act pertains to the office of the president.
State and local governments have varying Public Records Acts and Sunshine Laws.
There are exemptions, so not everything has to be released and your request can be denied.
It can take a lot of time (months or years) to submit a request and get a response (which you can often appeal if it is initially denied).
These resources will help you learn more about public records requests and how to submit requests. Some will even help you submit and track requests online. Others also include online collections of previously requested and published public records.
The FOIA project is a project developed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The site offers comprehensive information on federal FOIA decisions at every stage, and includes data tools, tracking of FOIA lawsuits, and various reports on FOIA.
Requesting public records at the state or local level can often be faster than at the federal level. However, the public records laws vary by jurisdiction so below are some resources to help you research what your state's public records laws are and local support groups.
National Freedom of Information Coalition provides resources including sample request letters for all states. It also provides a short overview including citations to primary sources of each state's Freedom of Information Laws.
From the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, "the Open Government Guide is a comprehensive guide to open government law and practice in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia detailing the rights of reporters and other citizens to see information and attend meetings of state and local governments."
From NFOIC, a list of groups in each state devoted to making public records available.
It is worth checking for records that have already been requested and posted online. Many government agencies have public websites or reading rooms where you can view documents, and there are other websites that contain online collections of public records. Some suggestions are: