An old and familiar, sometimes beloved, sometimes reviled government resource is reaching the twilight of its life, and like an august but increasingly behind-the-times elder statesman is about to be retired from service and supplanted by his more vigorous young progeny.

For almost 20 years now, the Web site THOMAS: Legislative Information on the Internet has been providing U.S. citizens and others interested in the federal legislative process with free access to congressional bills, resolutions, statutes, calendars, and other information about the Congress.

Beginning on Tuesday, November 19, the thomas.gov URL will begin redirecting users to Congress.gov, a new legislative service that will fully replace THOMAS by the end of 2014. Users will continue to have access to THOMAS at http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php until the Congress.gov site is complete and out of the beta stage of development.

How it All Began

In January 1995 congressional leaders announced the launching of a new legislative portal, operated by the Library of Congress and designed to make the work of the U.S. Congress more transparent and more accessible to their constituents by bringing together in one free, centralized, online database information that was previously only available in separate locations or for a fee. The new Web site was affectionately named THOMAS in honor of our third president, who in a famous petition expressed his view that “in order to give to the will of the people the influence it ought to have, and the information which may enable them to exercise it usefully,” the communication of a government’s representatives to their constituents must “be free, full, and unawed by any.”

This early version of THOMAS was mainly valuable for providing searchable, full-text house and senate bills from the two most recent congresses at the time. It also offered several other features, including directory information, schedules, rules, and C-SPAN coverage for the House of Representatives, as well as links to the Library of Congress Web site. Curiously, not much information was available from the Senate yet, although THOMAS was touted optimistically by house leaders as a bicameral project.

Senate information as well as other valuable contents were added later, including summary and status of bills, committee reports, and voting records—all integrated with the full text of the bills. Presidential nominations, treaties, the Congressional Record, and live broadcasts from C-SPAN were also added to this increasingly heady mix of congressional resources.

THOMAS Starts to Show Its Age

Internet technology has changed considerably since 1995, and THOMAS has not always kept up with the times. Users often found its interface clunky and frustrating. For instance, the InQuery search tool used by THOMAS generates temporary URLS that can’t be bookmarked or linked to in a document or Web site. Users have to follow a whole separate set of instructions to obtain permanent links to their documents.  The THOMAS site also does not display well on the mobile platforms that have become so popular today.

Many started doubting THOMAS and gravitated toward non-governmental Web sites such as GovTrak and OpenCongress, which presented the same information in a more attractive, user-friendly format. Eventually the incremental improvements and additions to THOMAS were deemed not to be enough, built as they were on a once innovative but now unwieldy and increasingly obsolete infrastructure, and a decision was made to scrap the whole Web site and design another one from scratch that would contain the same data and more, but present it in a more modern, user-friendly way.

Time for a Change: Enter Congress.gov

In September of 2012 the new Web site, Congress.gov, was launched in beta format. Built with state-of-the-art technology and designed according to the latest standards in information retrieval and display, this site is intended to be sleeker, more accessible, and more intuitive than THOMAS, even with more features and more content added.

Here are a few of the improvements:

  • An attractive, responsive display that adapts to a variety of platforms, including desktop, tablet, and smartphones, without requiring a special app
  • A simple, intuitive search box displayed prominently at the top of the opening screen and incorporating Boolean search capabilities
  • Faceted searching, allowing users to refine their initial search and explore related information through a variety of filters
  • Consistent, permanent, logical, search-engine-friendly URLs
  • Congressional Budget Office cost estimates for proposed legislation
  • Profiles of congressional committees and members of Congress
  • Downloadable app versions of the Congressional Record and the Constitution Annotated
  • Video tutorials explaining each step in the legislative process

Even the new name might be considered an improvement by many. We may miss the distinctiveness and warmth of the old site’s name – no more having a chat with our old friend THOMAS – but the new name is admirably clear and straightforward. There will be no more wondering whether (or why) it should be spelled in all caps, nor rampant speculation on whether it’s an acronym, and, if so, what the letters might stand for.

Moving Forward

This transition won’t happen overnight—these things must be done delicately! Some congressional information is still only available on THOMAS. Until all the information has been transferred, the old Web site will be accessible from the Congress.gov home page as well as through a direct link: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php

Theoretically any links to subpages on the THOMAS site should still work until the transition is complete, but some of them didn’t seem to be working today.

The Congress.gov site is continually being tinkered with while in its beta stage, so be sure to send in any feedback you may have about your opinions on the site, your personal experience in using it, or your suggestions for improvement. You could be an influential contributor to this ambitious project if you act now!

Learn All About It

The Law Librarians of Congress blog, In Custodia Legis, has been posting numerous articles following the transition from THOMAS to Congress.gov as it develops.

Library of Congress news releases have also been following the transition process (enter “congress.gov” in the search box to see a list of articles):

Several online classes on how to use Congress.gov will be offered next year during the transition period. See the registration form for available dates and to register online.

As always, please don’t hesitate to contact the UNT Government Documents Department if you need help with this Web site or have other research questions.

What has been your experience with THOMAS, and what do you think of Congress.gov so far?

Comments are closed.