On Wednesday 15th February our Web and Communications Officer, Philippa Rose (The King’s School, Canterbury), attended the House of Commons Library Open Day at Portcullis House, Westminster. The Open Day sparked a great many conversations among visiting library and information professionals from many different sectors. Here is just a flavour of the day’s proceedings.
“Information and evidence is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy”
House of Commons Librarian, Penny Young
This statement has never felt more pertinent than in today’s political landscape with the rise of post-truth and alternative facts. It is a central message of the library service at the House of Commons and serves as a great introduction to their mission and values. For me, the relevance of this and of the library itself reignited an optimism about securing the future of all libraries. I hope that I can do justice to that feeling here, as well as to the great work that is done by the staff at the House of Commons Library every day.
I had very little idea about the kind of service the House of Commons Library provided before the Open Day. It is an unusual library in many respects. The work that they do is very specialised (more about this later) but among a large group of visitors to the Open Day from many different sectors it was easy to see the fundamental qualities each of our libraries shared. First and foremost we all aim to inform our users and to provide evidence or testimony to a variety of experiences and knowledge whether that be for scientific or historical purposes, empathic or imaginative adventures.
I am obviously preaching to the converted, but it is still necessary to state that libraries don’t just provide books. The Open Day was, in part, designed to open our eyes to the wealth of non-book related materials and services provided by the library, not just to it’s members, but to the wider community as well. It was this that inspired the most interest and conversation among our group of attendees.
Too often the value of libraries has been measured in their capacity to significantly reduce the cost of access to books, journals, audio and visual materials. This is a role that libraries fulfil very well and that is a necessary and beneficial service to provide. Nevertheless to appreciate the library only in as far as it fulfils this role has contributed significantly to the decline in appreciation for the value of libraries globally. Access to information is about more than just handing over a book, journal or DVD. It is about ensuring that the prospective user is able to access the content housed in whatever shape or form of resource is being passed across the issue desk. It is in understanding and continuously communicating this important distinction that the future of libraries will be secured. The House of Commons Library is doing fantastic work in just this way, and their annual Open Day is just one part of communicating that message.
We were introduced to a variety of ways in which the library serves the information needs of its patrons, including the provision of:
- books, official publications, journals, and online resources including specialist reference databases and an in-house database for Parliamentary and European material
- reading rooms for Members of Parliament to work away from their offices in a private, quiet space
- research briefings that offer impartial, comprehensive factual information on major pieces of legislation, policy areas, and topical issues
- debate packs that collate press and parliamentary materials for non-legislative debates
- subject-specialists who are on hand to inform on constituency casework, PMQs, programmes like BBC Question Time, and much more
- an in-house data and search service for born digital and digitized materials.
Research briefings, debate packs, and subject-specialists are all part of the impartial information and research service for MPs and their staff. It is one of the main services of the Library and they are available to members of the public via the library catalogue and webpages (see below).
As well as introducing the work of the Library and Parliamentary Archives, and taking a look at some of the interesting older material held in both (the archival collection includes the death warrant of Charles I and a collection of photographs of MPs arranged by beard type), attendees took part in a focus-group research session intended to bridge the gap between the library service and its wider community, such as the library sectors represented at the event. As a school librarian, the apparent ease of researching via google, compared to understanding the wider environment of information providers (such as the House of Commons Library service) was a conversation we kept returning to. It’s seems like a case of the hare and the tortoise. You get quick results from google, but it takes much longer to make something out of them, whereas the briefings and constituency tools are harder to find but launch the calibre of research beyond what the top google results can provide. But we are drowning in data and google tempts us with that quick fix. This is why library visits and open days are so important, not simply as a networking opportunity or a chartership box ticked, but as a vital part of our role to continuously expand and curate our map of the information landscape that surrounds us but is too often drowned out by search engines. This is precisely why I found the House of Commons Library Open Day so exciting and so inspiring. The service is obviously key; but outreach and engagement is really where it’s at in successfully navigating today’s information society.
Our day ended with a visit to the Commons Library (a magnificent suite of rooms designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin in the mid-nineteenth-century) and a tour of the Palace of Westminster, which included Westminster Hall (the oldest part of the Palace), St Stephen’s Hall (where Walpole, Pitt and Fox debated; William Wilberforce argued against the slave trade; and a suffragette chained herself to the statue of Lord Falkland in protest against the refusal to grant women to right to vote), the House of Commons and the House of Lords Chambers, the Royal Gallery and Queen’s Robing Room. It was such a pleasure to be able to explore a building with such immense historical and cultural significance!
Interested in education, politics, or news and current affairs? Try these free resources provided by the House of Commons Library:
- Lords Library Notes: Leaving the EU: The UK and Ireland
- POSTnotes: Nuclear Security
- Commons Debate Pack: Iran’s influence in the Middle East
- Visit the Constituency Explorer website or download the Myconstituency app on your tablet or smart phone for current statistics in your area
The House of Commons Library blog includes regular analysis from their specialists.
Follow @commonslibrary for alerts on the latest Library legislative briefings.
Many thanks to the House of Common Library team for organising such an interesting and inspiring day!