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Campus Notebook: Freedom of Information

A provision in the omnibus appropriations bill that President Barack Obama signed on Wednesday will get the ball rolling on free public access to legislative data.

[IMGCAP(1)]The provision, written by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), gives the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service and the Government Printing Office 120 days to put together a report on the feasibility of free access to legislative archives and better search options on the database at thomas.loc.gov.

Bulk downloading is already possible for a hefty fee. But because the information is the property of Congress, Library of Congress spokesman Matt Raymond said the legislative branch needs to direct the agencies how they should make more information freely available to the public.

Were free access to be allowed, the public would be able to download documents such as the Federal Register and the U.S. Code without charge. Currently, the GPO charges thousands of dollars for the documents — it costs $17,250 to download a year of the register — so services such as LexisNexis and Westlaw are the primary buyers. Their users can access the data for a fee.

The study would also find out whether it makes sense to improve search capability on thomas.loc.gov.

Raymond said, however, that updating THOMAS is more complicated because the Library’s data systems were built beginning in the early 1990s and can have a hard time interacting with modern data.

The library is already testing converting the data into XML, which would allow innovative private developers to create their own databases where users could cross-reference a variety of government data.

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