The Government Domain: New Tools For Government Research

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) .

Developers of government information search tools have not stood idle since my March Government Domain column about FirstGov Search and Google Uncle Sam. No, they have been busy indeed. This column covers two more sites entering the world of search: and Clusty’s Gov+. At the end of the column, I look at a few developments that go beyond search: FirstGov’s RSS directory and the human-powered Government Information Online project.

Search: Elegus

Elegus Select and Search is a new tool for searching the text of federal and state government web sites. It is operated by Adam Piacente of LegalTrek. Elegus (pronounced e-LEE-jus; see the FAQ) was launched in March with a press release picked up by many of our favorite blogs. Initially offered as a paid ($14.95/month) subscription, Elegus quickly changed to a free service.

Elegus brings us easy selection of groups of state and federal government sites to search. And rather than rely on the rough logic of limiting a search to the .gov domain as Google Uncle Sam does (see the March column about problems with this approach), Elegus has intelligently identified and selected government web sites to build its own government search universe. You can choose to search a single site, such as the site for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, or choose a logical group of sites, such as all Courts of Appeals web sites. Online documentation includes a complete list of the indexed websites.

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Before you start with Elegus, you will need to turn off any browser pop-up blockers. Click on “Search Now!” on the Elegus home page, and you will be directed to the Select-and-Search page. This page is somewhat awkwardly split down the middle. The left frame is where you will actually select web sites and enter search terms. The content in the right frame is, at this point in your search, not much more than a distracting placeholder for where your results will appear.

In the left frame, click on the appropriate level of government to restrict your search. Select a site or group of sites by clicking on the bullet next to its name. Do not be distracted by the Yahoo! page appearing in the right frame. Ignore it for now, and type your search into the left frame’s search box. Yahoo! search results, limited to the site or sites you have selected, appear in the right frame.

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Here is a sample screen, with the search term ‘BRAC 2005’ and US Congress selected as our search universe.

With one click to select the next bullet, you can repeat that search on legislative agency sites.

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Look at the information just above the search results to see which specific sites were included in the Elegus “Legislative Agencies” group: Architect of the Capitol (AOC), US Botanical Garden (USBG), Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Government Accountability Office (GAO), the US Capitol Police, and various Library of Congress sites, including the Copyright Office. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is not listed because its web information is part of the larger Library of Congress site.

The web hierarchies that Elegus constructs for searching groups of sites do not always coincide with official government structures. For example, individual Senate committee sites can be selected for search, but individual House committee sites can not. Elegus has constructed its hierarchy according to the Internet domain and subdomain structure employed by the web sites. The Senate has given its committees separate Internet subdomains while the House, I learned from Elegus, has not. In addition, searchers may find some entities that are misplaced in the Elegus directory. The Government Printing Office (GPO) initially was listed under “Executive > Independent Federal Agencies > Offices.” I discovered this in the course of testing the service and, after an email to the helpful folks at Elegus, GPO was moved to the Legislative Agencies section.

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Elegus’s intelligent selection of government sites is particularly helpful for state government searching. To search all – or at least most – of a state’s public web sites, you may have to go to three or more Internet addresses. The search example for Kansas, at left, illustrates the issue.

Yahoo’s display of domains searched shows how many state executive, legislative, and judicial sites encompass the Kansas state web.

A single-state search on Elegus will find more information than the same single-state search on FirstGov (again, see the March column) because FirstGov appears only to search one central site—what would typically be considered the state government portal – for each state.

Elegus is one more important tool in the kit for searching federal and state government information on the web, and its approach to searching state government sites is particularly useful.

Search: Clusty Gov+

Government information searchers may have to get bigger toolboxes, because here is another new one: the Clusty Gov+ search, part of the Clusty search engine from Vivisimo.

According to the site, Gov+ “combines a metasearch of FirstGov, MSN limited to the “.gov” domain, DefenseLink, political news from Reuters, the Associated Press, and CNN, and a number of prominent American think tanks, including RAND, The Brookings Institution, The Cato Institute, and The Heritage Foundation.” Use the Advanced Search to select one or a combination of these sources.

The selective search universe of Gov+ could be useful for searchers who need a quick overview of the news, policy analysis, and documents on a government topic. Clusty’s main claim to fame, however, is the clustering of search results into labeled groups of similar information. The clustering and the labeling are done automatically, on the fly. While I have found this feature to be useful on Vivisimo, I found it to be less so on Clusty Gov+. Sure, the clusters help to separate items about Turkey, the nation, from those about turkey, the bird. But the clusters my searches have generated on Gov+ have often been either too general (a cluster labeled “Washington,” grouping disparate items that happen to quote a Washington, DC address, or mention the state of Washington) or just not intelligent enough (a cluster called “Arms, lifting” had information about lifting a patent restriction along with items about lifting an arms embargo).

Beyond Search: FirstGov RSS directory

You often need to search, but you always need to keep up with the news. Government agencies have long offered email distribution lists. Now, they are starting to offer RSS. FirstGov has a new directory of RSS feeds operated by the federal government. The directory is part of the News section in FirstGov’s Reference Center. Feeds are listed under such categories as agriculture, health, and military. The categories are thinly populated at the moment but likely will expand as the government makes more feeds available. This new FirstGov section also has introductory information on RSS and RSS readers.

A privately maintained blog, librarian Ray Matthews’s RSS in Government had been providing the useful service of announcing new international, federal, state, and local government RSS feeds. The blog has gone into hibernation, but should re-emerge later this year. I will announce it in this column when it does.

Beyond Search: Online Reference Service

This resource goes beyond web search to tap those human search engines, librarians. Government Information Online is a virtual reference service specializing in answering questions about, as the name indicates, government information. It is a pilot program initiated and managed by the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Illinois State Library. Got a question? Submit the email form and look for a reply within 48 hours. Or use the online chat service, available Monday through Thursday, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. EDT, and Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. EDT. The pilot project lasts through November 14, 2005. At that time, we can expect a report and news of whether, or how, the project can continue.

Government Information Online parallels the migration of government documents from print to online by making the reference services of government documents librarians available via the web. Thirty-two government documents libraries and GPO participate on a cooperative and volunteer basis. OCLC provides the resources, and the project uses OCLC’s QuestionPoint service.

Research is more than a word search, and researchers need to have a lot more in their toolboxes than a few handy search engines. A good librarian knows the best tools and sources -online and offline – to answer a question. An experienced reference librarian also knows how to work with a researcher who is still discovering what the question is. It will be interesting to see how the Government Information Online project develops along with the changing tools for government research.

Posted in: Government Resources, RSS Newsfeeds, Search Engines, The Government Domain