Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

The First Resource

Rep. Pennington File/tiles/non-collection/4/4-5-Pennington-File2.xml Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives Editors created "slug" drafts of profiles for the print publication of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress during the early 20th century. Representative Pennington's biographical profile "slug" highlighted the length of his name.
Representative Alexander Cumming McWhorter Pennington of New Jersey was a two-term Member of the House of Representatives during the 33rd and 34th Congresses (1853–1857). He served as the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and later died in New York City.

At a whopping 35 characters, Mr. Pennington is known to the Office of the House Historian as possessing the longest name in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (affectionately called “Bioguide”), a compendium of personal and career information on every person who has ever served in Congress.

Pennington may have had a superlative name, but his Bioguide profile, which first appeared in the original 1859 print edition of the Biographical Directory, is a typical one. In one paragraph, it covers the scope of his life, including his birth, education, pre-House activities, party affiliation, committee chairmanship, and death:

a Representative from New Jersey; born in Newark, N.J., July 2, 1810; completed preparatory studies; attended the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., 1826-1828; studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1833 and commenced practice in Newark; member of the state general assembly in 1837 and 1838; alderman of Newark 1837-1840; elected as a Whig to the Thirty-third Congress and reelected as an Opposition Party candidate to the Thirty-fourth Congress (March 4, 1853-March 3, 1857); chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs (Thirty-fourth Congress); moved to New York City, where he died January 25, 1867; interment in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Newark, N.J.

The Directory’s style—this chronological list of biographical information—has remained largely the same during the course of its 162-year history. But in 1998 a revolution occurred in how Bioguide’s content was made accessible to the public. Pennington’s entry, alongside thousands of other Member profiles, was uploaded to a new state-of-the-art database: the Online Biographical Directory of the United States Congress at bioguide.congress.gov!

Debuting the week of November 9, 1998, the database combined three key components to help users discover more about every Member of Congress: biographical information, the location and scope of known research collections, and a list of published material in a bibliography.

Bioguide Instruction Manual/tiles/non-collection/4/4-5-Bioguide-Netscape.xml Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives This scan from an early editor's instruction manual showed Bioguide (on the internet browser Netscape!) at its infancy.

Revolutionary and Accessible

For its time, the online Bioguide was groundbreaking. The Directory became the first stop on an internet search for information about a Member of Congress. As the web grew, so did Bioguide and its loyal following of congressional scholars, genealogical dabblers, and eager students.

Bioguide in 1999 and 2003/tiles/non-collection/4/4-5-BioGuide1999-2003.xml Screenshots from nonprofit, Internet Archive, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representative Over the years, Bioguide improved with the addition of a few changes.  In the top image from 1999, the original homepage featured only four search variables. The bottom image from 2003 added Political Party and Year or Congress to the filter. By then, individual profiles also included images.
When the Directory was just a print publication, decades often passed before an updated volume was published. But when Bioguide launched online, the House and Senate History offices responsible for maintaining the Directory were able to make daily edits and updates, and new Members could be added at the start of every Congress. Between requests for more information about obscure Members and diligent researchers submitting suggested changes to Member entries, the offices received hundreds of Bioguide-related inquiries each year. The editors grew thankful for the millions of sets of eyes that now browsed through more than 12,000 Directory entries. Even Representative Pennington received an update in 2006. Researchers pointed out that in one location his political parties were incorrectly listed. With a website like Bioguide, editors swiftly made the revision.

Staying the Course

Over the last two decades, Bioguide online has made important updates to users’ experiences. The database added Member images and links to other websites in the research collections. Each Congress, editors added new Members and updated current and former Member entries.

But as the internet grew more sophisticated and its graphics more modern, the Online Biographical Directory kept its original late-twentieth-century interface. For more than 20 years, trusty Bioguide looked and worked much the same as it did during its launch.

Time for A Change

Twenty-three years later, however, Bioguide is now new and improved. In December of 2020, the beloved Online Biographical Directory of the United States Congress graduated to a new web interface. Behind the scenes, it also migrated to a new content management system.

The Modern Bioguide/tiles/non-collection/4/4-5-NuBioGuide.xml Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives In December 2020, the new web interface for the Bioguide debuted, featuring a more powerful search function and a more modern design aesthetic.
In addition to its modern appearance, Bioguide also includes a long-awaited update to its search functions. Ever since its inaugural launch in 1998, Bioguide has held a goldmine of interesting data, but its search capabilities had always been somewhat limited. Users could search by name, date, party, Congress, and office, but the database was not universally searchable and for years historians and researchers struggled to comb through its vast quantities of information. No longer. Users can now explore the entirety of Bioguide using the new search bar.

During the transition to the new site editors made corrections, double checked names, and added new data fields. With the new search, an entry about Representative James Harvey “Cyclone” Davis of Texas was discovered. The curious nickname buried in one entry among thousands practically begged for further research, resulting in a blog post. Many other historical gems are waiting to be unearthed.

For those who simply can’t leave 1998 behind with their Walkman and are asking “How Do I Live” or wonder whether “My Heart Will Go On” without the look and feel of the original Bioguide, rest assured that the lovingly termed Bioguide Retro has retained that classic design.

For everyone else, welcome to Bioguide 2.0.

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