CRAWLING ONTO THE KEYBOARD

The many words of Congress are taken down each day by 16 stenotype reporters, transcribed by 50 typists and printed in an average of 200 single-spaced pages of the Congressional Record, roughly 35,000 pages a year.

But congressional insiders and members of the public are gradually giving up flipping through printed pages in favor of scanning an electronic version of the Record on ''Thomas,'' the Internet World Wide Web site maintained by the Library of Congress.Paper remains an essential commodity on Capitol Hill, of course. But the mountain of documents increasingly is turning into a river of electronic data that is more easily handled, searched and archived.

New technology also has raised new policy questions about the degree to which Congress should open its electronic information to the public and whether it should employ new measures designed to preserve the security of internal communications.

When House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., snipped a ribbon to open the Thomas site in January 1995 - it was named for President Thomas Jefferson - he endorsed a broad push to ''reach beyond the Gutenberg era'' to improve the efficiency of Capitol Hill and to open a new channel of direct communication with citizens.

Three years after the birth of Thomas, members of Congress and their staffs are using computers to keep afloat in the flood of information inside the Capitol.

In-house networks in the House and Senate, like corporate intranets, disseminate schedules and other information.

An internal Web site for both chambers of Congress, called the Legislative Information System, was launched this year and includes customized search software.

Both the House and Senate also have public Web sites for members, committees and support agencies such as the General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office. The House Web site even includes an electronic law library.

The new Internet Web sites and internal computer networks on Capitol Hill are part of an emerging electronic architecture that connects both chambers of Congress and the Washington and home-state offices of members with other agencies. The main artery of the system is optical fiber cable, which permits a stream of electronic information, including text, video and audio presentations.

Reynold Schweickhardt, a former research and development manager for Hewlett-Packard Co. and now a staff member of the House Oversight Committee, recalled the culture shock when he came from Silicon Valley to Congress in 1995.

''Congress was behind the times,'' he said. Thomas was a gleaming new electronic front door, but other computer technology seemed antiquated. In the House, there were nine electronic mail systems used by different offices that made the delivery of messages between them slow and unreliable.

''Some electronic mail would take days to arrive,'' Mr. Schweickhardt said. ''It was ridiculous. Some people had to call up to see if their electronic mail arrived.''

Last year, the House installed an integrated electronic mail system. Since then, the delivery of messages has gotten smoother. In the Senate, an integrated mail system installed eight years ago prevented glitches similar to the old House system.

Both the House and Senate have upgraded their computers and software. There are now more than 15,900 personal computers on Capitol Hill for the 16,800 official employees of the House and Senate.

Both chambers have also pushed for the new Legislative Information System, a Web site similar to Thomas but accessible only by members and congressional staff. It will replace several computer systems that Congress and its library have used for research since the 1970s.

The new system will use a customized version of the Inquery search software that forms the heart of Thomas and the White House public Web site, said Paul McOwen, vice president of Sovereign Hill Software, the Massachusetts company that makes Inquery. ''It will make for a smarter Congress. No, make that a better informed Congress,'' he said.

While the new technology makes access to information easier, it has begun to raise security questions.

Mindful of the problems some government agencies and companies have had with computer break-ins, Congress has begun to consider new measures, including the possible use of encryption, to protect electronic documents and internal communications from being accessed or altered by outsiders.

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