An Old Report Made New


I’ve been on a mission, since November 14th, to find a digital copy of S.Pub 102-20, a reference document from 1990 giving a very comprehensive analysis of all public congressional information, from an archival perspective. I’ve finally managed to digitize a copy (after some quality time at the scanner). It is a large file. (Click here to download a PDF.)

The preface describes it as a "study of the archival sources that document the operations of Congress." The "archival sources" described in this document comprise the entire body of public congressional information, the substance of both administrative minutiae, and legislative substance. Just as we are interested in the capacity of the public to be conscious of its legislature, we should be interested in the legislature’s capacity to take stock of itself, to engage in constructive introspection. (more)

I came across this document being repeatedly cited while reading the yearly reports of the Advisory Committee on the Preservation of the Records of Congress, and still find rich irony in the fact that the document itself wasn’t available in a digital form. That’s not to say anything against the Advisory Committee, which seems to be an outgrowth or a result of the task force that wrote S.Pub 102-20, and also inspired H.R. 5241 from the 101st Congress, a bill reorganizing the National Archives, among other things. The Advisory Committee seems to be among the very best of examples of an organization created to meet an emergent need, cutting across jurisdictions and what one of its members recently described to me as "negotiated terrain" (a description I very much liked).

The complex problem of coordinating congressional information is difficult, but not for the usual reasons. As far as preservation goes, the administrative coordination is already in place, and it seems that the research (and even enforcement ) about disclosure mechanisms has been in place for quite some time. What has been lagging is not administrative will, but the digital culture and popular expectations that make IT investment a real priority.

This is clearly changing, as new staffers expect to represent their members of Congress online without encountering arcane restrictions, as citizens expect to encounter government information and services through the same search engines they use for research and shopping, and a new brand of journalism is springing up that depends not on cultivating trusted sources through personal relationships, but on careful consideration of primary sources–exactly those "archival sources" this document so comprehensively describes.

While some disclosure will be resisted for as long as the benefits of secrecy outweigh the outcry over obstruction, and privileged access will always be at odds with the broader public interest, it is good to see that a detailed anatomy of congressional information has already been constructed in great detail. The question that remains is how well will Congress adapt to new expectations of information access — a question that necessarily comes along with a digitally empowered citizenry.