Review: Congress.gov > THOMAS

At the end of October, the law librarian’s most trusty resource for conducting federal legislative histories, THOMAS, will be sunsetted. I know many of you will miss its html-table, multi-hyperlinked design, the digital tic-tac-toe board of our country’s legislation. But, rather than having to crack open a hard copy volume of the United States Code Congressional and Administration News and stain its pages with your tears, you will be proud to know THOMAS will be replaced by the clearly superior congress.gov. We have to congratulate our Federal Government: the new site has successfully incorporated dynamic design and an easily navigable, logical layout.

CongressGOV_1The initial search screen features multiple filters in the left margin, increasing search precision especially for “terms of art”-centered queries. We have seen this interstitial searching before–Westlaw Next and Lexis Advance come to mind–and this design is a welcome addition to legislative information. The reason this type of interface works is because searching is an iterative process: the user learns more about the subject matter they are researching after they receive and process the results from their initial searches (see Carroll and Rosson’s “paradox of the active user” theory). Designing the interface in this way assumes a user learns more about the legislative process while searching for an individual bill, rather than the assumption that a user has complete knowledge of the legislative process and high level of knowledge about the bill they are in search of. All in all, being able to filter a results list down by subject of legislation or session of congress, among other categories, is a welcome feature that will most certainly improve the end-user’s experience.

The bill screen now features a row of organized tabs, rather than numerous table cells, making for an elegant display of a bill’s summary, text, actions, titles, amendments, cosponsors, committees, and related bills. The real improvement here is that the bill’s datasets are centralized–the user does not have to jump off the diving board to find different categories of information on his or her bill. The likelihood of getting lost in a sea of legislation is vastly diminished.

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There is even a convenient bill tracker widget, which gives a quick, graphical-bar view of a bill’s current status. Beyond being a nice visual addition, this exemplifies attention is being paid to the small details of the site, details which make the life of a researcher easier.

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Notably, though similar, the data sets underneath both sites are not identical. Congress.gov contains all legislation back to the 103rd congress (1993), whereas THOMAS goes back to the 101st congress (1989). Congress.gov contains the Congressional Record going back to the 104th congress (1995), but THOMAS reaches back a little further, again to the 101st congress (1989). Hopefully, there’ll be plans to incorporate older legislative information into Congress.gov in the future, but come November, toast to the memory of THOMAS.

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