On 5-6 December 2019, the IFLA Government Libraries Section organised a conference on Informed Parliaments, Engaged Citizens, Effective Governments. Participants from around the world explored the changing roles of information and decision-makers, and how libraries could help.

Through providing access to information, and support to use it, all types of library help the communities they serve pursue their goals by taking better decisions. This is particularly true for government and parliamentary libraries, whose job it is to support decision-making in cases that will affect thousands, if not millions of people.

Yet at a time that the possibilities to use information are expanding rapidly – for good or otherwise – and the expectations of users with them, how can libraries continue to provide high-quality support?

The conference, organised at the UK Department of Work and Pensions in London by IFLA’s Government Libraries Section under the theme ‘Informed Parliaments, Engaged Citizens, Effective Governments’, shared examples of good practices and challenges, focusing on how to build strong institutions – the objective of Sustainable Development Goal 16.

The Power of Information

In his keynote speech on 5 December, Trevor Huddleston, Chief Analyst and Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK Department for Work and Pensions illustrated the powerful role that information and analysis – including of historic data and texts, played in developing policy in the country’s largest government department.

Information helped not only to ensure that ministers were better placed to take crucial policy decisions, but also supported planning and operational changes.

Former IFLA President Donna Scheeder set out the targets established in the Sustainable Deveopment Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG16, which focuses on peace, justice and strong institutions. 

Other speakers underlined the opportunities provided by social media not only to reach new audiences, but also to start conversations with users who no longer accepted being told what to do by governments.

Cinzia Iossa, of the library of the Italian Ministry of Education, shared the powerful example of her library’s work to give access to its own collections from the fascist era. This supported ongoing educational efforts to combat hatred, as well as encouraging other institutions to recognise their own role in the events of the past.

The Role of Libraries

Nonetheless, concerns about misinformation and disinformation could not be avoided. Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, underlined that this did, potentially, serve to underline the uniqueness of libraries, given both their expertise and adherence to a code of ethics that offered real reassurance in a time of uncertianty.  

Iain Watt, Chair of IFLA’s Section on Library and Research Services to Parliaments highlighted the diverse ways in which libraries and information contribute to the working of parliaments, and called for further efforts to provide evidence of this work. 

Penny Young, Librarian of the House of Commons, stressed the high level of appreciation that Members of Parliament had for the work of the library and its research service, an experience shared by the European Parliamentary Research Service, with the challenge being more to manage demand.

Nonetheless, as IFLA underlined, the connection between effective use of information and strong institutions was not always understood. Libraries needed to work – through evidence and advocacy – to make this connection.

In doing so, they could place themselves at the heart of efforts to deliver on SDG16, and develop the capacity needed in governments and parliaments to deliver transformative policies.

Find out more about what IFLA is doing around the SDGs.