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This article looks at the needs of parliaments for library, research and information services and what is distinctive about parliamentary libraries.
But first, what do parliaments do? Or what should they be doing? Answers to this question affect the need for, and role of, staff in parliamentary libraries. There is scope for endless debate but that would be outside the scope of this publication. The IPU guidelines Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century summarises the essential functions of parliaments as follows:
- law making;
- approval of taxation and expenditure, generally in the context of the national budget;
- oversight of executive actions, policy and personnel;
- ratification of treaties and monitoring of treaty bodies;
- debating issues of national and international moment;
- hearing and redressing grievances; and,
- approving constitutional change.
The IPU guidelines go on to say that “parliament’s contribution to democracy lies in carrying out these functions effectively, not only in the sense of the efficient organisation of business, but of doing so in a way that serves the needs of all sections of society.” This representational aspect of parliament’s role is increasingly being treated as a core function rather than a means to an end, and parliamentary libraries are often required to provide information specially tailored for the public as well as their more traditional duties.
However the role of parliament is defined, it will be apparent that many of these functions place a heavy demand for information on parliamentarians. For example, in exercising oversight of the executive, parliamentarians are likely to be up against a government bureaucracy with substantial resources at its command. If parliamentarians are to make an impact, they need their own sources of information. Or when debating issues of national and international significance, a lack of accurate information is likely to be seized on by political opponents. But the problem may also be an excess of people willing and eager to provide information; for example, when legislation is being discussed, especially contentious legislation, there are likely to be lobby groups and others only too keen to provide parliamentarians with information supporting their own view. Thanks to search engines and the Internet, it is easy for parliamentarians to get hold of information from a huge range of sources, but, paradoxically, getting trusted information rather than “fake news” seems to be increasingly difficult.
Legislators operate under heavy time pressures. A demanding media insists on immediate reaction to policy changes, crises and news, allowing limited time for considered reflection. Furthermore, the society in which the legislator operates is becoming ever more technical and issues are becoming ever more interrelated with each other.
The job of the legislator is, then, a high pressure one and one that depends on them being able to give lucid and often brief explanations. While this is an art that politicians might be expected to possess, it does have important implications for parliamentary libraries. For instance, parliamentarians need to be briefed very clearly, complex technical and legal issues need to be simplified without being distorted and above all, information, especially if it contains statistics, needs to be up-to-date. An argument based on out of date knowledge quickly turns to embarrassment. Much the same can be said of accuracy, which is essential, especially when parliamentarians are in public debate and being questioned or questioning, not only in the legislature, but also in broadcasting studios, interviews with journalists, meetings with constituents and the like.
Another factor which increases the pressure on parliamentary libraries is that parliamentarians tend to see their own needs as uniquely important and uniquely urgent. They have all been sent to the legislature by groups of constituents, probably on the basis of a party manifesto, and they will probably expect to pursue their mandate and represent their electors in whatever way they see fit. Parliamentary staff are usually expected to give equal priority to all parliamentarians, so fulfilling all of their customers’ expectations is usually very challenging.
Legislatures are highly charged institutions concerned with the clash of ideas and policies: staff serving them need to understand this fact and to develop political antennae which enable them to produce information in a form useful to parliamentarians, while at the same time demonstrating the political impartiality which gives their users confidence that information and advice they receive will be unbiased.
The advantages to legislators of having a parliamentary service, in addition to the many other sources of information available to them, include the following.
Parliamentary services are dedicated to parliament, its needs and tempo. This means that its staff understand how parliamentarians operate and respond to their needs.
Working for parliament not for the government. Governments may well be happy to provide parliamentarians with information, but they are likely to do so in a way that supports government policy. In other areas, governments may be reluctant to release information, creating a need for parliamentarians to have an alternative source. Parliamentarians therefore need independent sources of information if they are to scrutinise the government effectively.
Impartial service. Many people are willing to provide information to parliament and to individual parliamentarians but this is usually in the hope of furthering their own cause, interests or policy agendas. Information with integrity is available through the parliamentary library to support (or dispel) arguments which are put to parliamentarians. If a central service is provided it must be available and equally accessible to parliamentarians from all parties/factions across the political spectrum. The parliamentarian needs to have confidence that any information from the parliamentary library is balanced and unbiased.
Synthesis from different sources. The range and volume of material available is beyond what busy parliamentarians can cope with. A parliamentary library can bring together the key points in an accessible fashion, especially on issues that may be complex and technical. This needs to be unbiased but written with political awareness.
Covering the full range of public policy. Parliamentary library services can provide a ‘one stop shop’ where parliamentarians can seek information on the many and varied topics on which they may be expected to give an opinion.
Confidential to parliamentarians where necessary. Although much of the information produced by parliamentary libraries may be made generally available, it is often important that those seeking information can be confident that their enquiry will not be disclosed to others, for example, political opponents or the government. This may depend on local constraints such as freedom of information laws.
Collective memory. Parliamentary libraries can act as repositories of knowledge. They can do so by storing information which they know is likely to be useful to parliamentarians. Less formally, the staff build up a collective knowledge also based on experience, which helps anticipate needs and enables more recently recruited staff to benefit from the experience of those who have been around longer. Parliamentary libraries are able to preserve essential elements from historic debates or legislative process which may or may not have become part of the legislative record.
All this suggests a specialist clientele with specialist needs. But paradoxically, as well as being specialist, the needs are also very broad. Needs are specialist in the sense that parliamentarians have a requirement for information that is presented to them in a format which fits with the busy tempo of parliamentary life and with the distinctive role of the parliamentarian. That is, it should be concise, impartial, timely, and prepared by people who understand their needs (which means that the impartially provided information may be used in a highly partisan way). But the needs are broad in the sense that they reach across the whole field of public policy. Individual parliamentarians may well have an expertise in some areas of public interest. But clearly none of them can expect to be knowledgeable across the whole range of topics on which governments may wish to legislate or on which they may be called to express an opinion. Thus the need is for an information service which is able to provide advice and guidance on topics that the individual parliamentarian is familiar with, and may be a recognised expert on, and those in which he or she has little or no knowledge. Parliamentary libraries can be seen as special libraries in the narrow sense that they are providing services for a specialised clientele, but they differ from many such libraries because they need the ability to provide information on the breadth of human knowledge, rather than concentrating on a range of subjects relevant to a specialist clientele. In a nutshell parliament, and therefore the parliamentary library, is interested in the whole universe of knowledge.
 Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century: a guide to good practice. Inter-Parliamentary Union 2006.