Tip of the Hat to THOMAS


In May 2007, Sunlight called on the Library of Congress to “create stable links” to legislative documents published on THOMAS. This recommendation was part of a suite of recommendations to improve that public legislative database, first established in 1995. Although painfully obvious to mention, when hyperlinks are not permanent, people cannot share links to legislation with one another. The old URL dies after a matter of minutes.

The Library of Congress partially addressed these concerns by creating “handles” — stable hyperlinks to legislative information — a year and a half later, in October 2008. THOMAS didn’t automatically give users these handles. Instead, users had to follow a complicated set of procedures to modify the URL. Few people knew of the feature, or how to take advantage of it.

Not until November 2009 were our permanent hyperlink concerns addressed, by a source outside goverment. Web designer Asa Hopkins created TinyThom.as, which automatically converts THOMAS URLs into stable hyperinks. He also created a handful of useful tools. Although easy to use, not everyone knew that TinyThom.as existed.

It wasn’t until this week that the Library of Congress fully addressed our request for permanent hyperlinks. LoC announced a “new toolbar, found near the top of most THOMAS pages, [that] allows users to save or share a permanent link via bookmarks, email, or social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook. The toolbar also includes quick links to subscribe to THOMAS RSS feeds and to print.” LoC has also added a few other bells and whistles, including a top 5 list of frequently searched for bills.

I’m pleased to see that THOMAS is being improved. Its existence is essential to public understanding of congressional activities. THOMAS’ user-interface difficulties have spurred the creation of user-friendly legislative resources, such as GovTrack and OpenCongress. However, it’s underlying content is one-of-a-kind; it can only be provided by Congress.

That’s why we have called for a number of specific improvements to THOMAS. One of the most important is access to THOMAS’ data in bulk. What that means is that a member of the public could download all of the information from THOMAS’s database at one time, instead of having to access that information through its web interface. Other parts of the government already provide bulk download capability.

It appears that the Law Library (which is part of the LoC) has plans for THOMAS, which they announced in their Holiday letter [PDF]:

For the past two years, the Law Library has assumed greater responsibility for THOMAS (the Library of Congress’ public legislative information system). This year, we launched an analysis of the system’s functionality and content based on user feedback. As a result, we recently implemented changes to the presentation of content and are collaborating with the Government Printing Office to produce a database of all public laws covering 1789 to the present. This content will be added to THOMAS in 2010. Additional legacy content, including congressional hearings, treaties, and floor debates is being prepared for THOMAS in the next few years.

There is an appetite for legislative information, and a community that is hungry to build tools to take advantage of it. Let’s hope that these innovations spur others and build a culture of collaboration around THOMAS between those inside and outside the government.