Supporting Congress: Lawmakers and Their Library

(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell for the March-April 2013 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. Hartsell is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newspaper.)

The Library’s mission is to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.

By the time voters went to the polls in November, analysts in the Library’s Congressional Research Service (CRS) were hard at work researching the key public policy issues the newly elected representatives and senators likely would face when they convened on Capitol Hill nearly three months later.

The analysts in the Library’s Congressional Research Service identified roughly 160 such issues—from health care at home to political upheaval in the Middle East—and prepared research and reports that would be ready for use by the 113th Congress in the upcoming legislative session.

The research conducted by those analysts is but one service among many the Library provides to directly assist Congress in the performance of its legislative work. The Library offers members of Congress and their staffs a wide range of other support—legal research; guidance on important copyright issues; maps of global hot spots; expert, bicameral seminars on policy issues; information technology support; and, every two years, even the Bibles and bound copies of the Constitution newly elected members use in swearing-in ceremonies.

An act of Congress, signed by President John Adams, established the Library in 1800 to provide “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.” Today’s Library still provides Congress with books—more than 30,000 volumes circulated to the House and Senate in the last fiscal year—but it serves in many other ways as well.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, CRS held an open house for members and congressional staff to help address constituents’ needs and concerns. Photo by Robert H. Nickel.

“The U.S. Congress created this amazingly library,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “For this, the Congress, past and present, deserves the most heartfelt thanks of all of us.”

Legislative Support

The research, analysis, seminars and programs produced by CRS provide Congress with a nonpartisan, confidential resource that helps members navigate the legislative process and address important, complex issues. Last year, CRS responded to about 700,000 congressional reference requests, delivered to Congress more than 1 million research products and offered a cadre of seminars and briefings.

CRS, for example, conducts a three-day orientation that provides newly elected members of the House with an overview of priority issues on the legislative agenda, legislative procedure and the budget process. The service also conducts programs that support Congress once the session gets underway – seminars, for example, that give members and their staffs the chance to meet with experts on a wide range of issues in an informal, confidential setting.

CRS has but one mission: Serve Congress in the performance of its work.

Similarly, service to Congress remains the Law Library’s first priority. Congress established the Law Library of Congress in 1832 with the mission of making its resources available to Congress and the Supreme Court—a mission that expanded over time to include other branches of government and the global legal community. Librarians and lawyers respond to congressional inquiries about U.S., foreign, comparative, and international legal and legislative research, drawing upon the world’s largest collection of law books and legal resources—more than 5 million items that span legal systems around the globe. Last year, the Law Library provided members of Congress with more than 300 in-depth reports, along with nonpartisan analysis and in-person consultations.

The Law Library’s legal reference librarians assist congressional and CRS staff any time either chamber of Congress is in session, no matter the hour. Law Library and CRS staff engage members of Congress through social media—RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs—on legal developments and course offerings.

Information Services

The Library brings together its unique combination of technical and congressional process expertise to provide Congress with a variety of information technology services.

The Law Library and CRS, working with the Library’s web services experts, maintain THOMAS, the Internet-accessible database that makes legislative information—bills, resolutions, treaties and the Congressional Record—available to Congress and the public. Congress.gov, a beta website operated jointly by the Library of Congress, the House, the Senate and the other legislative branch sources, provides the same information through mobile devices and eventually will replace THOMAS. The Law Library responds to all queries related to THOMAS and the Congress.gov beta site.

“Since the launch of the public legislative information system known as THOMAS in 1995, Congress has relied on the Library to make the work of Congress available to the public in a coherent, comprehensive way,” said Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) at the September 2012 launch of the Congress.gov beta site. “The Library staff has a strong working relationship with the House, Senate and the Government Printing Office, which will enable the Library to successfully develop the next generation legislative information website.”

Working with its legislative branch data partners, the Library launched a Congressional Record app on Jan. 16, 2012, and, on the following day, broadcast the first House committee hearing as part of a new streaming video project. Through the Congressional Cartography Program, the Geography and Map Division produces geospatial products for congressional offices and committees.

Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante (left) testifies before a congressional subcommittee on intellectual property rights and the Internet. Photo by Cecelia Rogers.

Copyright Issues

The Library of Congress also is home to the U.S. Copyright Office, where creators like Scott Turow and Taylor Swift and studios such as DreamWorks register books, songs or films for copyright to protect their rights as creators—more than 510,000 such claims were registered in fiscal 2012.

The register of copyrights—the director of the Copyright Office—also serves as the principal advisor to Congress on copyright issues. As such, the register works with the Senate and House Judiciary committees and with individual members to provide advice and technical expertise on copyright law and policy and to develop recommendations for potential legislative discussions in the future. The register also provides expert testimony before Congress and its committees.

Congress Comes to the Library

Curator Ed Redmond (left) shows items from the Geography and Map Division collections to (from left, at table) Reps. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.). Photo by Abby Brack Lewis.

The Library’s three Capitol Hill buildings, all located within a block of the U.S. Capitol, frequently serve as meeting and event venues for members, including events in conjunction with the start of each new Congress. The Library provided space for more than 85 events for members in the last fiscal year: staff retreats, panel discussions, meetings with foreign legislators, luncheons, concerts and receptions.

The Congressional Relations Office, the primary point of contact between the Library and Congress, helps manage those congressional events and other services. Last year the office hosted nearly 500 visits by members and arranged tours for more than 84,000 constituents referred by 466 congressional offices.

The Congressional Relations Office also runs programs that provide service to constituents back home. For example, the office worked with more than 150 members of Congress last year to send surplus books to local libraries, schools and museums. Through another program, the office helped congressional staff teach educators in their home districts how to use the Library’s vast online resources in their own classrooms. Last year, the Library trained more than 27,000 teachers from 378 congressional districts to use primary sources in the classroom.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), co-chair with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) of the Library’s Congressional Caucus, paid tribute in a November floor statement to the service the Library provides in helping Congress perform its constitutional duties. “Perhaps one of the best parts of serving in Congress is the access to our Library, the Library of Congress, the dedicated staff at CRS, and the magnificent Members Reading Room,” Blumenauer said. “The Library of Congress is truly a national treasure.”

A download of  the March-April 2013 issue of the LCM is available here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.

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