or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk


Reference Question of the Week – 3/15/09

   March 21st, 2009 Brian Herzog

Thomas JeffersonSince Obama became President, we've had a new regular patron at the Reference Desk.

I don't remember ever helping her before the Inauguration, but since then we get a couple questions from her a week - all relating to government actions or political news. Often they're questions like "how many Democrats are in the House of Representatives, and how many are Republicans" (254 [D], 178 [R]) or "can you print the text of Obama's Inagural speech" (text from NYT, text & video from the White House blog).

But sometimes her questions require a bit more work. In early February, she wanted copies of both the House and Senate versions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill so she could compare them to see the differences. And more recently, she asked what were Barack Obama's accomplishments while he was in the Senate.

For these types of questions, I always turn to the Library of Congress' THOMAS database ("In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, legislative information from the Library of Congress").

Searching it is always a bit daunting, just from the sheer amount of information it contains. But the flip side is how much you can learn when you start sifting through it.

When researching the stimulus bill, a search for "HR1" found a record that includes the bill's history in Congress, detailing each vote at each stage (since researching this question, I notice the LOC put a nice link to another handy schedule overview on the THOMAS homepage).

But as far as comparing the two bills, I'm not entirely sure what the patron was expecting. The House version of the bill was 679 pages [pdf] and the Senate's amended version was 736 pages [pdf]. That is certainly beyond printing, and this particular patron will not use a computer, so she just gave up on that quest.

As for Obama's legislative record, THOMAS also offers an Advanced Search for every Congress. It allows searching by Member of Congress, and can be limited to role and bill status. Since Obama served in both the 109th and 110th Congresses, I search both for the number of total bills he sponsored or cosponsored, and then also filtered to see how many of those bills have become law (sponsored 282 bills, with 2 becoming law; cosponsored 977 bills, with 29 becoming law).

The patron was happy with this, and I am still fascinated with THOMAS. The oldest records seem to be from the 93rd Congress (1973-1974), and a search on "impeachment Nixon" yields 36 various resolutions and bills. A search in the 107th Congress (2001-2002) for "USA PATRIOT Act" shows that H.R.3162 (132 pages [pdf]) was introduced into Congress on 10/23/01 and became law on 10/26/01.

Good stuff.



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