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New search engine offers better access to Congress

WASHINGTON — Congress unveiled a new search engine Wednesday to help politicos, lobbyists, researchers, students and any other interested citizens find legislation working its way through the House and Senate to become new laws.

The Library of Congress says the new website is in beta form and will eventually replace the THOMAS legislative search system after a year of fine-tuning the new system.

The new site is more like Google, with one box to search all data. It can filter search results like a shopping site with categories of merchandise. In this case, it can narrow search results by year, by subject, by House or Senate or other factors. also is mobile friendly for Capitol Hill staffers glued to their Blackberries. It was built with responsive design technology to automatically rearrange a search screen to fit on a smartphone.

This is Congress’ first new search engine since THOMAS was launched in 1995 after just three weeks of development when the Internet was in its infancy.

“It’s like comparing a tricycle to a Cadillac,” said Jim Karamanis, the library’s chief of web services, before a test drive of the new site. “The web was not very advanced” when THOMAS was created.

THOMAS, named for Thomas Jefferson, gets 10 million visits each year. But the library found many users outside the political world didn’t know what THOMAS was. The 17-year-old search system became slow and outdated, and it required insider knowledge to navigate.

For example, a search of “health care reform” on THOMAS only scans bill summaries for actions in the current Congress, and it returns a funding bill among other results — not President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. Searching past congressional actions is a separate function, and finding the text of a bill is three links deep in the old site.

The new search engine, built by the library’s tech and legislative experts, is more intuitive, designers said. It was developed entirely in-house with open source technology. Contracting out the project would have likely cost millions.

Now a search of “health care reform” on the new site scans bill texts, summaries and statuses and all available congressional years at the same time. Obama’s health care law immediately rises to the top of the results.

It offers an easier identification of a bill’s current status and new biographical profiles and legislative histories of each member of Congress.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who chairs a committee overseeing the library, said the new site allows people with different levels of expertise to follow developments and proposals in Congress. Rep. Dan Lungren of California said it would enhance transparency and save the library money. The old system has become costly to maintain.

For the first time, search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing will be able to easily retrieve information from the site. The old system couldn’t handle outside search engines crawling the site, except for a more limited indexing by Google.

Another big improvement: Web addresses for searches on will be permanent, standardized and can be shared. That means details on legislation could be shared from the site on e-mail, Facebook or Twitter — further elevating how they would appear in Google searches, Karamanis said.

By January, the library plans to add the full Congressional Record: every word spoken by senators and representatives in congressional debates.

When designers showed focus groups the new features, “there were audible oohs and ahs,” project manager Tammie Nelson said. Still, she wants to hear feedback on the new site to help refine it over the next year.

The library predicts many users to make the switch quickly, but some will be sad to see the THOMAS name retired.

“I actually apologized to Thomas Jefferson at his memorial,” Nelson said. “But we’ll do him right, and we’ll have a tribute when we retire the name.”