The Government Domain – Congressional Documents on FDsys: the Basics

FDsys interface The U.S. federal government’s content shop, the Government Printing Office (GPO), is rolling out a new website for the government documents stream that it manages. The Federal Digital System (FDsys) is to replace GPO’s fifteen-year-old GPO Access website by the end of this year. GPO is moving content to FDsys gradually, collection by collection, with congressional documents leading the pack. GPO refers to the current system as a public beta version.

Congressional documents collections currently (as of 26 July 2009) available through FDsys are listed below. The capitalized acronym for each document collection is the “collection code” used in advanced FDsys command line searching, described later in this column.

FDsys also has the GPO Public and Private Laws database online from the 104th Congress (1995-1996) to present the collection code is PLAW. At this point, the document collections on FDsys cover the same scope as their equivalents on GPO Access. When all GPO Access content has been moved to the new system, GPO Access will no longer be updated and will be taken offline.

GPO Access searchers are accustomed to first selecting the document database they need and then deciding whether to browse the documents or conduct one of several types of search—simple, advanced, citation—depending on the database options. FDsys enables different approaches to searching and browsing. Use Browse Government Publications to browse documents in a collection by date, with a secondary browse by document type. The same Browse Government Publications page also has tabbed options to browse congressional committee publications by committee name or browse all FDsys documents by date range. Within a collection, additional browse options are appropriate to the collection. Congressional bills, for example, can be browsed by congress number and then by type of bill and bill number.

FDsys interface


Like the browse option, search can take several paths on FDsys. The Search Government Publications box will execute your word search in all FDsys document collections at once. Advanced Search provides the option of searching in one, several, or all FDsys collections. Advanced Search also has options to limit by date or date range and to search for keywords in the full text, title, or other fields. The top of the search results page has an option to conduct another word search within your results.

FDsys search syntax differs from GPO Access, a welcome change for all vexed by the GPO Access reading of a space as a Boolean OR. The FDsys Help section, available from a link next to the main Search Government Publications box, covers search syntax in the Search Query Operators section. The bottom line? A space now indicates a Boolean AND. “Double quotes” are still required to indicate an exact phrase. Basic syntax includes:

  • AND – a space or the word AND
  • OR – the word OR
  • NOT – the word NOT or a minus sign
  • Exact Phrase – “double quotes” around phrase
  • Proximity – near/# – for example, health near/5 insurance
  • Ordered Proximity – before/# – for example, President before/3 Obama
  • Truncation – asterisk – for example, health* finds healthy, healthful, etc.

FDsys offers search syntax beyond what is listed above. Advanced searchers should consult the Help section for all of the details.

Because FDsys defaults to searching all collections for all years–a difference from GPO Access and THOMAS –novice or occasional users may spend a lot of time on FDsys progressively narrowing and refining a search to get down to precisely what they need. Advanced or frequent FDsys users can turn to command line search and use data fields. To limit your search to the Congressional Record for the current Congress, for example, type the following in the main search box: collection:CREC congress:111

To find mentions of the new NASA administrator, search on

collection:CREC congress:111 nasa bolden

Command line search using FDsys fields is particularly helpful in the Congressional Bills collection. To find all versions of a specific bill in the current congress, search on collection:BILLS congress:111 citation:(“h.r. 157”)

FDsys also offers range searching. If you want to search the Congressional Record for the two most current congresses, for example, include congress:range(110,111) in your search. The same range can be expressed with congress:range(110,), which selects all congresses after and including the 110th. The basic FDsys fields are listed in the Search Query Operators section of FDsys Help; however, each collection has a unique set of data fields. Click on the About Government Publications link in the upper left box on the FDsys home page to see descriptions, sample searches, and a full list of fields for each collection.

Search Results

Once your search results are displayed, further options for refining the results appear in the left column. The left-column options vary by collection but, if you are searching multiple collections, options typically include narrowing by Collection, Date Published, and Government Author.

Each FDsys collection has its own collection-specific facets for narrowing search results. If you are searching a congressional documents collection, Congress Number will appear as an option. You can narrow by bill version in the Bills collection, and in the Congressional Record you can narrow by section of the Record or by whether the item includes a House or Senate roll call vote. Some facets for refining your results list—such as mentioned Persons, Locations, and Keywords—are generated from automatic analysis of the documents, rather than from controlled metadata. These facets may help narrow a search or provide insight into the results, but they are not always perfect. In a Congressional Record search, for example, the Location option often includes the names of members of Congress.

From the search results list, documents can be displayed in PDF or text formats. The “More Information” display links to an XML version, MODS and PREMIS metadata (probably just confusing to the average citizen), and a text display of selected metadata (useful in collections such as BILLS, where a bill’s references to laws, the US Code, and Statutes at Large are listed). This metadata page can be emailed to yourself or others.

Finally, FDsys search results can be sorted by relevance and date, and they can be alphabetized by title.

FDsys in the Future

The public FDsys system will continue to grow with new content transferred from GPO Access and with new features, such as RSS feeds and customizable interfaces. GPO provides a webpage outlining a schedule for the major capabilities planned.

There is more to FDsys than the public interface. The system was designed to address many of the issues concerned with content intake, information management, and authentication and preservation of electronic documents. Along with enhancements to the public search system, GPO will be working on enhancements to their operations behind the scenes. For further information, see the GPO’s Federal Digital System (FDsys).

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