GPO delivering presidential papers online

During the Truman administration, the National Historical Publications Commission recognized that the government had no official means of preserving the president's public papers and came up with an idea that delighted historians and librarians nationwide.

Noting the need for the uniform preservation of speeches, press releases, proclamations and other documents, the commission recommended the establishment of an official presidential papers project that would do for the executive branch what the Congressional Record does for the legislative branch.

Now, more than 40 years since the publication of the first volume of the Public Papers of the Presidents, the Government Printing Office hopes again to delight historians and librarians - and anyone else with a World Wide Web browser - by making the series available online through GPO Access (www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs).

T.C. Evans, assistant director of GPO's Office of Electronic Information Dissemination Services, said focus groups at recent meetings in New Orleans and Kansas City asked GPO to add the Public Papers of the Presidents, a 3-inch-thick volume in its printed form, to its Web site. The site already provides mouse-click access to the Federal Register, the Code of Federal Regulations, the Commerce Business Daily and masses of other government publications.

"One question I always ask people at those forums is, What don't we have that they would like to see?" Evans said. "[The Public Papers of the Presidents] was one of those items."

Eventually, all volumes of the Public Papers of the Presidents, from Truman papers forward, will be available at the GPO Access site. But so far, the new database, added Sept. 1, offers only one volume of President Clinton's papers, covering the first half of 1997.

Despite the relatively short time span, the database contains an enormous amount of information, including items ranging from obscure statements, such as Clinton's proclamation on Mother's Day, to more serious events, such as a transcript of a news conference Clinton held with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Helsinki, Finland. GPO worked with the National Archives and Records Administration, the longtime publisher of the print version of the Public Papers of the Presidents, to design the look of the addition to GPO Access. The papers can be searched, or users can choose a topic from six categories. The site includes photos and a name index that lists all of the people Clinton mentioned publicly and links to the speech or document in which he mentioned them.

GPO runs GPO Access on two Web servers, five Common Gateway Interface script servers and 26 database servers, and it didn't have to add any hardware to accommodate the presidential papers, said Joel Reeves, chief of the PostScript Service Section at GPO.

"The architecture allows us to add new products to existing servers without adding new hardware," Reeves said.

But with all the searching that users do, it helps that the architecture includes an F5 Networks Inc. Big/IP, which provides dynamic load balancing to keep traffic flowing smoothly. The controller sends search queries to the server that is least busy and sends no queries to servers that are down, Reeves said.

It is an improvement over the "round robin" feature of the domain name service that GPO Access used before installing the Big/IP controller in March, Reeves said. That solution sent queries to servers consecutively regardless of how busy the servers were or whether they were down.

Evans said load balancing is one of the most critical functions of the site, especially as GPO attempts to keep up with growing demand. In a typical month, he said, 21 million documents are downloaded from any of the 1,200 databases GPO hosts. GPO also recently doubled the number of T-1 data lines needed to maintain adequate network capacity, Evans said.

Evans said GPO has short-term plans for GPO Access to add more features and functions to the site. GPO technicians are adding meta tags that provide identifying keywords to the top of all Hypertext Markup Language documents. That will result in better search results because the search engine will not have to scan documents from top to bottom when looking for a match.

Other plans call for GPO Access to offer a new children's page, which Evans said would be designed to help elementary and secondary students learn how government works.

GPO plans to demonstrate the newest functions of GPO Access in two free 90-minute demonstrations on Sept. 30 at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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