The Government Domain: GPO Access and THOMAS for Legislative Research
By Peggy Garvin, Published on June 23, 2005
Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting is author of
The United States Government Internet Manual (Bernan Press) and
contributing author for
The Congressional Deskbook (TheCapitol.Net).
Published June 23, 2005
and THOMAS are essential congressional
research systems sponsored by the legislative branch of the U.S. government.
Both are available online for free. GPO Access and THOMAS each take a different
approach to legislative information and most researchers need to use both. The
question is not “which is better” but rather “which is better for the task at
To understand the differences
between GPO Access and THOMAS, it helps to know a little about the origin of
each. GPO Access was authorized in 1993 by Public Law 103-40, which called for
the Government Printing Office (GPO) to “provide a system of online access to
the Congressional Record, the Federal Register, and, as determined
by the Superintendent of Documents, other appropriate publications distributed
by the Superintendent of Documents” (44
USC sec. 4101(a)(2)). The
Legislative Branch section
of GPO Access maintains this document-centric approach. GPO’s focus, and its
strength, is providing online versions of official documents. They offer PDF
versions that retain the helpful formatting of the print originals, and they
have developed useful ways of browsing and paging through the documents online.
(GPO Access carries much more than legislative
materials, of course, but this column will focus on the site’s Legislative
THOMAS was launched by the
Library of Congress in January 1995 - the start of the 104th Congress
- at the request of Congress. At the time, the
House of Representatives, the Senate,
the Library of Congress, and the Library’s
Congressional Research Service (CRS)
already had a history of sharing data for mainframe legislative information
systems. Although not part of the initial launch, the core of THOMAS soon
became the CRS “Bill Summary and Status” (BS&S)
database, which was migrated from the Library of Congress mainframe. BS&S
features the CRS summaries of legislation and daily updates on the status of
legislation. It integrates this information with selected full-text files from
GPO and with other data, such as roll call votes, from the House and Senate web
THOMAS’s strength is the
integration of data and documents from many legislative sources, including GPO
Access. The legislative status steps for a bill are linked to the relevant
primary documents. The screen shot shown here displays linked status steps for
“major congressional actions” on H.R. 1268 of the 109th Congress.
Links go to the Clerk of the House site
for a roll call vote and to GPO Access for the text of the public law1,
as well as to other congressional web resources. THOMAS also offers more
detailed status displays than the one shown here. They are labeled “all
congressional actions” and “all congressional actions with amendments,” and
these also link to relevant web resources.
The documents offered by THOMAS
and GPO Access overlap to a certain degree, but each system includes unique
GPO Access has copies of
published congressional hearings while THOMAS does not, for example. And
because THOMAS drew on an institutional history of maintaining mainframe
legislative information systems, some of its files go relatively far back for
The BS&S database has summaries
and status information for legislation back to 1973, for the 93rd
Key Documents on GPO and THOMAS
Resolutions, all versions, full text
THOMAS – 1989 (101st Congress) to present
GPO Access – 1993 (103rd Congress) to present
THOMAS – 1995 (104th Congress) to present
GPO Access - 1995 (104th Congress) to present
Congressional Record (Daily Edition)
THOMAS – 1989 (101st Congress) to present
GPO Access – 1994 (103rd Congress, 2nd session) to present
Librarians’ Society of Washington, DC (LLSDC) maintains excellent inventories
of congressional information online. These LLSDC lists cover THOMAS and GPO
Access along with content from other free sources and from commercial
One of the most frequently
asked questions about THOMAS and GPO Access content is “which will be quickest
to post the information I need?” Each system is updated throughout the day, and
my general advice is to check both. Since GPO produces the official documents
such as the Congressional Record, GPO Access tends to have these online
first, but THOMAS picks them up quickly. The ultimate origin of the information
is Congress, of course. When content is delayed, the cause is often Congress.
When the House or Senate remains in session late into the night, the
Congressional Record for those proceedings may appear online a bit late the
following day. And officially published congressional hearings, not a printing
priority for Congress, may appear one or more years after the event.
At this point, neither
THOMAS nor GPO Access offers a current awareness email or RSS system to alert
researchers when new legislative content is posted2.
Researchers looking for current awareness services and alternative sources
should explore the other systems listed on the LLSDC documents cited above.
As many average citizens turned
amateur searchers can attest, online keyword searching on any system is
challenging. Searching GPO Access and THOMAS can be challenging due to the
specialized nature of the content, but also because both employ search engines
that users are not likely to encounter elsewhere. Both GPO Access and THOMAS
are over ten years old, and both - at the time of this writing - are using
variations of the same search software they launched with.
GPO’s primary search engine is
the early 1990’s phenomenon WAIS (Wide
Area Information Servers), which is near extinction anywhere on the web
outside of GPO Access. THOMAS uses the InQuery information retrieval package,
which was popular with several government agency web pioneers in the 1990’s. (InQuery
was developed by the Center for Intelligent
Information Retrieval at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and later
commercialized.) I do not have any news to share about THOMAS, but GPO is
actively planning new systems; these are detailed in their
Operations for the Future Digital System (PDF).
For the time being, I have a
few simple tips:
- First and foremost, read the
search help and consult the sample searches that both sites provide for each
of their databases. While GPO Access and THOMAS may not have cutting-edge
search software, they do provide extensive help designed specifically to
assist with their content. One look at the search tips will save you
mountains of time and frustration.
- When you can, on both GPO
Access and THOMAS, use other fields or limits to decrease your dependence on
specific search terms. For example, limit a bill search on THOMAS by sponsor
and stage in the legislative process, if you know it.
- Both systems cap initial
search results at a fixed number; 40 on GPO Access, and 50 on THOMAS. If your
searches always come up with 40 or 50 results, you either need to raise the
limit - it can be changed easily on either system - or narrow your search.
- On GPO Access, remember that
you must use double quotes or a Boolean AND to get results that include all of
your search words. A space in GPO Access is interpreted as a Boolean OR.
- Note that THOMAS provides
some flexibility in word or topic searching. The word/phrase search box on
most of its databases has the option to search for exact matches or for
plurals and other variations. The BS&S file has an option, albeit not well
integrated, to find and search on preferred terms from its Legislative
GPO Access and THOMAS take different approaches to
browsing, whether it be browsing all documents in a set or browsing within one
Browse options can also vary from database to database on either
system. GPO makes browsing easier for the Congressional Record. If you
want to read the Record rather than search it, choose GPO over THOMAS.
GPO also has an
easy-to-use interface for retrieving a page in the Record by page
number - handy since that is how items in the Record are cited. On other
hand, GPO has no browse list for committee reports while THOMAS does.
Using any legislative
information system involves the challenge of dealing with some very large
documents. On THOMAS, large bills and reports are chunked into bite-size
pieces and an HTML table of contents lets you jump from bit to bit. When you
want to see it all at once, choose the “Printer Friendly Display” option. GPO
serves up its documents in their entirety, in either plain text or PDF. Savvy
LLRX readers know that you can jump to specific words within a large document
by displaying it in its entirety and using the Edit/Find menu option (or
Control-F for PCs; Command-F for Macs). But it never ceases to amaze me how
many of our citizen searchers are getting along without this knowledge.
Legislative researchers should
be familiar with both THOMAS and GPO Access, at the very least. In addition to
their complementary features and content, these two sites have enough overlap so
that one can serve as a backup when the other is experiencing technical
difficulties. But which to choose first?
For straightforward document
retrieval, I prefer GPO Access. GPO is the source of the official documents,
offers PDF versions, and provides quick tips for pulling up just the document I
When I need to do more
research, I start with THOMAS. The integration of data and documents and the
value added by the summaries and status steps provide the clues I need when I am
not absolutely sure of what I am looking for or what I might find.
March 2005 column looked at
a privately-run legislative information service available online free of
charge. Like THOMAS, GovTrack integrates data from various web sources. Unlike
THOMAS, GovTrack has email and RSS alerting services.
Since the March column, GovTrack has expanded its scanned sources to include:
• Congressional Budget Office Cost
• Office of
Management and Budget Statements of Administration Policy
• House Whip Notices
• Amendments to bills, and
• All roll call votes (previously just covered votes on legislation).
GovTrack has also added a
Congressional Record browse feature similar to THOMAS’s, but with
integrated links to information on the bill when a specific bill is mentioned.
1 THOMAS has the full text of all versions of all
bills as they move through Congress, including the
version, the final version of a bill before it goes to the President.
THOMAS does not host its own database of public laws, which are technically
documents of the executive branch, but does link to the GPO copies.
2 GPO plans to launch an RSS feed later this year
to announce when congressional documents are posted online. LLSDC currently
offers such a service on a weekly basis (see
GPO Congressional Publication