House history at the click of a mouse

The House of Representatives has a rich collection of data, arts and artifacts that tell the history of the lower chamber of Congress. And a new website from the Office of the Historian and the Clerk of the House’s Office of Art and Archives brings together all these elements into one user-friendly portal.

“The driving idea behind the site was to create a site where the Hill community or the general public could connect with a tiny aspect of House history,” House historian Matthew Wasniewski told The Hill.

ADVERTISEMENT
The site, at http://history.house.gov, has something for everyone: hard data on congressional statistics, personal stories of staffers and lawmakers and photos of fascinating artifacts, such as the gavel then-Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) used to declare World War II.

“We wanted a site that would be helpful to a lot of a different parts,” said Farar Elliott, chief of the Office of Art and Archives. “It’s a website that really allows people to follow what interests them.”

Some offerings include:

 A blog that is updated regularly with information about new additions to the website.

Historical statistics, such the fact that “Since the U.S. Congress convened on March 4, 1789, 12,099 individuals have served as Representatives, Senators, or in both capacities.”

Profiles of lawmakers going back to the first Congress.

A map of the United States that allows the user to filter lawmaker data on a state-by-state basis. For example, the user can see how many women have served in Congress from each state.

A history of black members in Congress.

A search engine that allows a reader to search the collections by item or by grouping (such as by popular culture).

A series of oral histories from former staffers, which includes a special section on House pages.

A trivia section with fun, random facts like the information on the first standing House Committee: “The Committee on Ways and Means was originally created as a select committee in the 1st Congress on July 24, 1789. It became a standing committee in the 4th Congress (1795–1797).”

A section for educators offering lesson plans.

The viewer can also follow suggested links to dig in deeper about a chosen subject.

For example, by clicking on the section about the Speakers of the House, readers can find not only a listing of all the Speakers, but links going down the side of the page that offer the reader the chance to explore the history of the Speaker’s gavel, or learn about the offices the head of the House occupied.

“It’s a fascinating set of spider webs that connects things to each other,” said Elliott, who calls these links and sidebars her favorite part of the website.

Her office is also proud of the oral histories section, which includes memories of former staffers who worked during such times as the civil rights era and World War II.

And when the House decided to end its page program, the leadership asked the staff to put together a history of it. The result includes video interviews with former pages and trivia items, such as the first African-American page and the first female page.

The site also includes a tribute to lawmakers who were part of the civil rights movement.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Martha Roby (R-Ala.) announced the section’s launch in March as part of an effort to preserve lawmakers’ testimonies about their contributions to the movement.

The site had its soft launch in 2012. It took around 15 months, from concept to finish, to complete.

Staffers are looking for user feedback on where the site goes next.

“We are driven by what people need to know, and we find that out by people calling us and asking us questions,” Elliott said.

The office is pleased the newly designed site is being well-received by the members themselves, who received news of the redesign via a “Dear Colleague” letter.

“The feedback we got so far is really positive,” Wasniewski said.

And it’s going to continue to evolve.

“We’re going to roll out over the next year some social media — a dedicated YouTube page, a Twitter, maybe Facebook down the road.”


More in Technology

Amazon, Etsy officials to testify on open Internet

Read more »