Friday, March 6, 2009

FDSys: Free, Fast, and Even Fun Access to Federal Documents

You might already be familiar with GPO Access, the website of the U.S. Government Printing Office, which provides free electronic access to the official documents of all three branches of the federal government. Documents available on GPO Access include the U.S. Code, congressional bills, legislative history documents, Supreme Court decisions, budgets, and reports.

On January 19, 2009, the GPO publicly launched its next-generation digital information system, FDsys, and started moving the documents on GPO Access to FDsys. Currently, you can search FDsys for the following:
  • Compilation of Presidential Documents (1993 to Present)
  • Congressional Bills (103rd Congress to Present)
  • Congressional Documents (104th Congress to Present)
  • Congressional Hearings (105th Congress to Present)
  • Congressional Record (1994 to Present)
  • Congressional Reports (104th Congress to Present)
  • Federal Register (1994 to Present)
  • Public and Private Laws (104th Congress to Present)
The GPO is migrating documents by collection, and expects to complete the entire transition by mid-2009.

So why should you care?

For one thing, FDsys is still a completely free source of U.S. government documents. For those without access to Westlaw or Lexis, FDsys gives you the same official documents at no cost. Even for those with Westlaw or Lexis, FDsys is a great resource to know about because in these budget-conscious times, a lot of law firms are requiring their attorneys to exhaust or at least explore free options before moving on to the fee-based services.

More importantly, FDsys is so much more user-friendly that you might even find it fun!

The first thing you'll notice is that FDsys just looks so much better than GPO Access:

Appearances aside, the really exciting change is that FDsys offers great new features for both finding specific documents and easily browsing whole collections. FDsys has a Google-style box that lets you search by key terms, plus an advanced search feature that lets you further tailor your search by collection, date, type, and branch of government. You can also retrieve by citation, if you know which document you're looking for.

For example, if you’re interested in recent developments involving salmon fishing, a simple search for “salmon” retrieves Federal Register announcements of proposed rules on exempted fishing permits, appropriations bills affecting salmon recovery, and a multitude of other relevant documents.

The results of your search are automatically sorted by relevance, but can also be sorted by date or alphabetical order. A left-column tool bar lets you further narrow your results by government author, keyword, location, etc. FDsys even accounts for typos and near-misses by suggesting alternate search terms.

If you don't have a particular search in mind and just want to browse, FDsys lets you browse by collection, by date of publication, and even by congressional committee. If you want to see everything the GPO has published in the last 24 hours, or get all available documents from the Senate Judiciary Committee, FDsys makes it easy.

The GPO plans on rolling out even more features over the next three years, including saving searches and receiving notifications by email or RSS feed.

The next time you need federal documents, give FDsys a try. It might be a surprisingly pleasant experience!

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