Thomas refreshed

After listening to continuous gripes about Thomas, the Library of Congress' free legislative database, the library is heeding demands for expanded features. Thomas users will be able to easily search records from previous congressional sessions and browse legislation by sponsor, officials said.

Visitors will also quickly find information such as the status of bills, their cost estimates and updates from Senate hearings.

Officials said some cosmetic changes will appear in early September, including a redesign that mirrors the library's new Web site and tools to simplify navigation.

"We hope, by year's end, to deliver several enhancements to the current features to provide for quicker searches with more relevant results," said Kevin Novak, director of education outreach and Web services at the library's Office of Strategic Initiatives. "The release of Thomas set for early September is a refreshment of the site with a new, more pleasing look and feel."

Since Thomas debuted in January 1995 as a congressional initiative, lawmakers have called for the library to let users search information from previous congressional sessions and bill amendments. Although library officials are finally listening 10 years later, the extent of the renovation is uncertain. They have not finalized new features and search capabilities, officials say.

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

In the library's fiscal 2005 budget, Congress called for Thomas to become more comprehensive and accessible. Two weeks ago, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote in an e-mail message that a significant upgrade would allow all users to find a wider range of information is overdue.

He wrote that he and a small bipartisan group of senators spent much time last year talking with information technology specialists at the library. The lawmakers requested the capability to search information from previous congressional sessions, not just the current one, and access information about individual bills, such as summaries, texts, status information, cosponsors, reports and cost of programs.

A new search engine will power the Web site throughout its evolution. "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," Novak said.

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

One of Thomas' original architects said affordable searching across congressional sessions could and should have been available years ago.

"It is very easy to make cross-Congress searches with the current system, and it's hard to understand why you need a new search engine to do that," said Dean Wilder, a former senior systems analyst for IT services at the library.

Public-access proponents are cautiously optimistic, but they applaud the idea of cross-searching congressional sessions and reaching out to people with multiple skill levels for searching.

"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 the search engine of the federal government's Web portal has high recall but low precision.

Beth Daley, spokeswoman for the Project on Government Oversight, said she is most interested in whether the library's remodeling will make the legislative system more transparent.

Daley said bill markups should be searchable because they expose lawmakers' political motives. "The markup is like the shadowy side of [Capitol Hill], where all these dealings happen," she said.


**********

Thomas gets a face-lift

Library of Congress officials plan to update Thomas, a free legislative database, by adding the following new features:

  • Improved visual appearance.
  • Headers, footers and other links for easy navigation.
  • A left-side menu for quick access to main content sections.
  • Ability to browse legislation by sponsor.
  • Links to Senate hearings for nominations.
  • Links to legislative resources and learning activities.
  • A new help section.
  • Links to the full text of treaties.

— Aliya Sternstein

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