logo

Extras - Using Folio to Create Legislative Histories

By Lillian H. Fry, Published on April 18, 1999

(Archived June 1, 1999)


Lillian Fry has been the Manager, Library Services, Office of the General Counsel, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in Washington, D.C., since 1990.  Her library career began in 1973.
Folio software gets mixed reviews from end users, yet it dominates the legal publishing market, powering access to legal documents on many compact disks and commercial or free-access web sites. Its Boolean connectors are arcane (artist supplies@5 = artist w/5 supplies), its smallest component is a record (approximately a paragraph) rather than a document, searching specific fields requires slogging through brackets and colons, and printing requires specifying a range of records, or highlighting a block of text, rather than a simple click to print a document. Nevertheless Folio has significant advantages for storing and retrieving documents.
My introduction to Folio software came from a temporary librarian who had worked at Folio. I watched her create two infobases: a collection of the PBGC's 600-plus opinion letters, now residing on our web site (http://www.pbgc.gov) and a legislative history of the Retirement Protection Act of 1994, available to PBGC staff in native Folio. After she left, I continued work on her databases and created some of my own. Making our opinion letters available on our web site required acquisition of Site Director, Folio's web publisher. While some limitations are imposed by HTML, most Folio functionality is retained in the browser.

I found Folio's biggest advantage to be in legislative research. Finding the documents to create a legislative history is no longer difficult, whether you plan to store them in hard copy or electronically. A print legislative history must have an index to be useful. Indexing is a very time consuming process and may not help with certain kinds of research. An electronic document collection can be much more helpful in locating an obscure phrase or tracing the history of a provision.

I found Folio's biggest advantage to be in legislative research. Finding the documents to create a legislative history is no longer difficult, whether you plan to store them in hard copy or electronically.

Folio is closer to a word processor than to any other kind of software. Using it effectively requires no programming knowledge. Once the documents are imported, styles can be applied (font type, background colors, borders, document dividers) as can "levels."

To create an electronic legislative history using Folio, the documents can be downloaded in text format from GPO Access. Bills, reports, introductory statements, floor debate, the public law, and occasionally, related committee prints are available. I begin collecting as soon as a committee has reported a bill of interest. I set up a directory to house the documents and add to them until the bill is enacted. Then I begin importing the documents into a Folio infobase. I import them so that the Public Law is the first document, followed by a conference report, if there is one, House and Senate reports, Congressional debate, and finally all versions of the bill, most recent first. All indexing is done immediately and all documents become searchable as soon as they are imported. It would not be necessary to do any other work on the infobase to make it useful, although much can be done to enhance usefulness and appearance.

Folio is closer to a word processor than to any other kind of software. Using it effectively requires no programming knowledge. Once the documents are imported, styles can be applied (font type, background colors, borders, document dividers) as can "levels." Levels create a hierarchy of the information in the infobase. For example, the titles of the documents might be your highest level, and form the table of contents of your infobase. Several levels may be applied to each document to add detail to the table of contents. The table of contents is useful when reviewing the results of a search. If, for example, you were seeking to determine legislative intent, you would probably want to look at where your provision is addressed in the committee or conference reports. If you perform a search, you can immediately jump to the contents view and see quickly whether the terms on which you searched appear in any of the reports. If they do, the number of "hits" will be listed next to the contents item.

Tables or other graphics can be imported into Folio infobases and hypertext links to other parts of the infobase, to other infobases, to programs, or to web sites can be added. It is a very versatile tool.

If you aren't prepared to spend time creating polished legislative history infobases, Folio is useful for "quick and dirty" legislative research. For example, a patron will often arrive in our library asking us to provide the legislative status of a particular bill. If no action has been taken on the bill, the bill language may have been incorporated into another bill. This is frequently true of bills affecting Federal government management or employees. The language is often added to an appropriations bill, particularly the Treasury and Government Operations appropriations, or a consolidated appropriations bill cobbled together at the end of a session.

The Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations bill (H.R. 4328) enacted in October 1998, is a good example. It contains over 2,000 pages, not easy to search through using "Find" in either the Adobe Acrobat Reader or in a word processor. However, you can "pull" the text into Folio by opening the document and importing it using Folio's text filter. It is not beautiful, but it enables you to quickly search through the massive amounts of text using the Folio search engine. Hits are highlighted and you can use the "next hit" button to quickly jump from phrase to phrase. Once it has served this elementary purpose, the file can be edited for retention or deleted.

Folio performs this one function very well -- grabbing large amounts of text and making it instantly accessible. It is less satisfactory at storing fielded data or a combination of fields and text, but is useful to have in one's arsenal to facilitate quick responses to legislative history and status questions.

If you aren't prepared to spend time creating polished legislative history infobases, Folio is useful for "quick and dirty" legislative research.

***************

DISCLAIMER

This article does not constitute an endorsement of any product and the opinions expressed are mine alone. They do not represent the views of my employer, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).