Top of page

Municipal Codes: A Beginner’s Guide

Share this post:

This post was co-authored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer, Legal Reference Specialists.

Although we are likely more frequently asked about federal laws here at the Law Library of Congress, we do receive quite a number of reference requests concerning state and local law.  Of these non-federal requests, some of the more challenging questions deal with laws found in municipal codes.  This challenge arises largely from the difficulty in finding copies of municipal codes for our patrons, as there is no one singular clearinghouse for all municipal codes.  We hope that this Beginner’s Guide can help those patrons performing research regarding municipal ordinances to more easily sort through the resources available, and find the information they need.

A note before we begin—to make sure we are clear about what we mean when we say “municipal codes,” we are referring to the collection of laws passed by a local governing body (often of a county, city, village, township, or other similar governmental subdivision).  The laws themselves can be referred to by many names, including “ordinance,” “bylaw,” and “measure,” among others.  As long as they do not conflict with the laws of the state in which the municipality is located, these ordinances have the “force and effect of law” in the municipality.[1]

Sources of Current Municipal Codes

A room containing a conference table and chandelier in the Schenectady City Hall where the city council met.
“Interior, city council, 1st floor – Schenectady City Hall, 100 Jay Street, Schenectady, Schenectady County, NY” courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Most of the questions we receive regarding municipal codes ask about the current form of the law.  Luckily for these researchers, a large number of current municipal codes are freely available online via several publishers’ websites.  Some of the more popular such websites include:

While none of these sites contain all of the municipal codes in the United States, they provide a helpful (and free) jumping off point for legal researchers in this area.

Sources of Older Municipal Codes

For those researchers who seek older, superseded versions of municipal codes, the research process becomes slightly more complicated.  Old versions of municipal codes may be found in multiple locations.  First, we suggest focusing your search in the geographical area in which the municipality is located, as institutions in that area are more likely to have the documents you seek.  Thus, you may want to start your search at the local public library for the municipality, and/or an academic, governmental, or other public law library in the municipality’s state.  Some researchers have also found success contacting the municipality’s clerk’s office, as well as the official archives for the municipality’s state.

Further, you can use a catalog that pulls from a broader collection or set of collections, such as the Library of Congress or WorldCat catalogs. To perform a more targeted search, simply use the subject heading “Ordinances, municipal” in connection with the name of the municipality you are researching.

Sample Municipal Codes and Other Guidance

For those researchers seeking information about trends in municipal ordinances, or for municipalities wishing to find out more information about laws that could improve their area, there are organizations that provide guidance regarding research supporting and language involved in drafting municipal codes:

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are not law in and of themselves,  but may help a researcher unravel and understand an unfamiliar area of the law. The secondary sources listed below are varied; they will help you understand the basics of municipal law, provide you with references to interpretive cases, and will equip you with useful forms.

We hope this Beginner’s Guide is helpful. If you have any questions about researching municipal codes, please contact us through our Ask A Librarian service.

[1] Norman J. Singer and J.D. Shambie Singer, Statutes and Statutory Construction (also known as Sutherland’s Statutory Construction).  Although this resource does not focus particularly on municipal ordinances, it offers a very helpful chapter on the topic.

Comments (7)

  1. Wonderful!

  2. A very helpful and concise summary of important sources of Local Government Law. The Secondary Sources especially are good.

  3. why we need these city codes? and what is their contribution to the development of cities and urbanization

  4. I am in the process of updating our Municipal Code book. Where within the book, should I file pages with the following: Supp. #13, SB 491. A google search explained Supplement #13, Senate Bill 491 (Missouri). The Bill was passed on May 13, 2014

  5. Please update this article, this is and was such a great resource. There is still a need for this information for many of us in the industry be it vendors are actual members serving the community in the many roles these details reflect.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *