Library and Research Services for Parliaments: it’s complicated!
21 September 2022
Parliamentary Libraries contribute to democracy through the provision of information, of reference and research services, of subject matter expert support to parliamentary committees and associations, and in many cases, the provision of information to the public about parliament. IFLA’s Library and Research Services for Parliaments Section (IFLA PARL) discusses the work and its challenges.
Information, including government information is at the heart of the work of parliaments. The essential functions of parliaments include oversight of the work of the executive branch of government, law making, and approval of taxation and expenditure. For all of these, the starting point is often government information of some kind: a press release, a statute or draft statute, a report or policy proposal, a statistic or data set.
Parliamentary libraries and research services provide fast and reliable access to information for parliamentarians. Furthermore, they contextualize and analyze all manner of information, including government information, operating impartially within an intensely politicized environment, which makes them an essential resource for parliamentarians in carrying out their work and informing the decisions they take. Because they work for the legislature rather than the executive branch of government, they are trusted to be honest information brokers and service providers.
Access and Contextualization
Most parliamentary libraries provide a reference and/or information service: timely, accurate information in response to questions from parliamentarians. These may include straightforward requests for facts, contact information or an article or document, or they may be complex requests involving a comprehensive literature search. The library can help parliamentarians (or their staff) to identify appropriate information sources to improve the focus of their own research. This may take the form of responding in person, over the telephone or via email, or in cases of frequently-asked questions, creating bibliographies and information guides that are posted on the library’s website for self-service by users. Many parliamentary libraries also support parliamentarians’ need for current awareness with news curation services.
In the days when most published information was available in print format, parliamentary libraries maintained a comprehensive repository of subject-specific commercial as well as official publications. Now that this information is mainly published online, parliamentarians and their staff can access it directly. However, they may not be able to find it easily. Parliamentary library staff have a good understanding of databases, key publishers, and significantly, of how government departments are organized and who is responsible for what. They monitor the news and official announcements and can quickly work out what official publication lies behind a poorly-referenced or misleading news story. For the parliamentarian who wants to look in a bit more depth at a policy, they can identify preceding publications – manifesto commitments, consultation documents, draft legislation, as well as associated material from think tanks, experts and other parties.
Web pages are more vulnerable to disappearing than a paper record. Official publications are at greatest risk when the government changes or when web sites are replaced. Some parliamentary libraries maintain a digital repository of key government documents, if this is not provided by the national library or archive, to make sure access to key government documentation is maintained.
Most parliaments, in addition to a library, have a research service which supports elected representatives. This is often part of the library, but it may also be managed separately, under the same department or another part of the parliamentary administration. The research service provides in-depth policy analysis and briefings for parliamentarians. In a larger research service, researchers who specialize in different subjects may be recruited.
Briefings may be commissioned by committees or by individual MPs, or they may be published and made available to all parliamentarians, either in hard copy or on the parliamentary intranet or website. The focus is usually government policy proposals, current legislation and policy implementation. Increasingly, these published briefings are also available to the public, and they are frequently used by journalists, academics and policy experts.
The service provided by parliamentary libraries needs to be accurate, timely, relevant, and impartial. This last aspect is important if their work is to be trusted by MPs of all political colours. Analysis of government information needs to represent the government’s position accurately, as well as showing a fair and balanced selection of alternative opinion. The parliamentary library provides an essential counterweight to the massive resources which can be deployed by the government to create documentation and make its case. This role as an honest broker is appreciated by representatives on the government’s side as well as by the opposition. For example, parliamentary libraries make a big effort to translate complex policies into plain language, and play an important role in countering inaccurate accounts of government policies which parliamentarians can fall victim to.
While many libraries manage information, government information and services in similar ways, the unique dynamic of parliamentary libraries is worth recognizing. Operating as an impartial service provider within the legislative branch and its politicized clientele, while relying on information and materials from the executive branch makes for a complex challenge, set against an already complicated backdrop of strained trust in government officials and institutions, both core to our operations.
The work of IFLA PARL in providing an international network for parliamentary libraries is essential to the library and research service leaders navigating these environments and issues. IFLA PARL’s guidance on the core functions of library management has recently been updated (Guidelines for Parliamentary Libraries, third ed.), and there is also guidance on provision of research services (Guidelines for Parliamentary Research Services) and ethical considerations (IFLA PARL Ethics Checklist).
IFLA PARL Standing Committee Member
Director Service Development, UK House of Commons