Thomas legislative database to get a facelift

The Library of Congress is overhauling Thomas, the library’s free legislative database.

Since Thomas debuted in January 1995 as a congressional initiative, several lawmakers have called for an update to Thomas. Ten years later, library officials expect to complete a prototype of a new search engine by the end of the year, they say.

Yesterday, library officials confirmed by e-mail that they will implement a new search engine for the Thomas Web site. They did not reveal specific tools or legislative information that they will add.

When the overhaul is complete, users will be able to search across Congresses, congressional records and committee information with a single query, according to the officials' e-mail.

“The new search will implement browse navigation that can access content across different systems contained within the Thomas Web site," wrote Kevin Novak, director of education outreach and Web services in the library's Office of Strategic Initiatives.

"We will leverage the library’s expertise in taxonomy creation to integrate resources across distinct systems,” he wrote. “We expect that the new search tool will greatly enhance searching accuracy as well as reduce the number of searches necessary to find relevant information among the sites.”

Last winter, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a proponent of open government, said he wished to see Thomas offer Internet access to additional legislative documents, such as voting records, Congressional Research Service publications, Senate gift reports and committee documents.

The Thomas database, he said, should be easier to navigate and more comprehensive. In 2003, Cornyn was among several senators who urged the library to let users search across Congresses and find pending bill amendments.

The new site will cater to first-time users and daily visitors, officials wrote yesterday. It will display a simple, comprehensive interface and include tools for advanced searches.

In the meantime, the library will continue using Verity’s UltraSeek search engine, officials added.

The library is also updating its Web site to allow users single-search access to text catalogs and multimedia collections. The library’s offerings are now divided among five databases.

Public access proponents are cautiously optimistic about the Thomas project. But they applaud the idea of Thomas cross-searching Congresses and reaching out to multiple skill levels.

“It remains to be seen what their new search engine does,” said Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. “I’m hoping it’s not a FirstGov model,” she said, adding that FirstGov, the federal government’s Web portal, has high recall but low precision.

In the past, McDermott has expressed the need for congressional markups and committee reports in Thomas.

“It would also be really excellent to put in a keyword and be able to pull up committee hearings and legislation -- to be able to put in ‘Patriot Act’ and pull up all the bills, hearings and testimony that pertain to the Patriot Act,” she said today, adding that the system would ideally link to the Government Printing Office, which deposits all the testimony.

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