Thursday, 18 February 2016

House of Commons Library Open Day 2016

Occasionally a chance arises to visit a really special library. The House of Commons Library open day for librarians (17 February 2016) was just such an opportunity. A carefully crafted programme, delivered by colleagues from the House of Commons' Information Services Directorate enabled the effective sharing of knowledge and experience. The receptive audience of sixty librarians, drawn from an impressive spectrum of libraries from across the UK, collectively made for a very beneficial and truly enjoyable day. 
Palace of Westminster from the London Eye. Source: Jedyooo, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed for reuse through CC-BY-SA 3.0 

The morning sessions provided lightning introductions to the various teams within the Information Services Directorate. We heard a number of fascinating tales, overviews and outlines.

Chiming with my own experiences Julie Keddie, Collection Management Coordinator gave a breathtaking recollection of needing to move extensive collection stores from the Palace of Westminster basements. Even with tight deadlines Julie proved that these times of unexpected space crises can be used to good effect: identifying elements of collections that could be housed by other organisations; selecting items that need to be housed closer at hand, and those that could be moved to on-site or off-site stores. Planning, prioritisation, clear record keeping incorporating  a prominent and motivational colour coded record of progress, together with working with an experienced team of moves contractors, were key lessons learned. There was also a nugget of seeing what your storage partners may be able to provide for you as part of their involvement. Wrapping, packing, stock inventories, unpacking and unwrapping may be services that storage specialists can offer to ease your burdens!

Liz Marley provided a thought-provoking session "Mind your language: indexing politics". Indexing usually has power to aid, group, differentiate and contextualise. But, just occasionally, index entries have power to offend. An index term "Baha'i Sect" was changed to "Baha'i Faith" in response to user feedback. Language and terminology changes. How should materials on ISIS, ISIL, IS, Islamic State, "So called Islamic State", Deash, etc be indexed? Indexes need to reflect this variance of language / terminology, and sometimes only time will provide a clear primary, accepted and authorised entry for the concept. How should wit and sarcasm be indexed in the proceedings of Parliament? A question to Nick Clegg on whether his sat-nav had broken because he seemed to be avoiding visits to universities and students unions, really reflected coalition policy on student finance. The true intent of the question was reflected in the indexing! Parliamentary Question Liz informed us that there is a beta test search facility for Parliamentary materials. This could be profitably used in my own enquiry work, but also to check, revise and expand our own subject terms.

 'very precise words in terms of indexing can be very loaded words in terms of debate'  @NickPoole1 #hclOpenDay

Dr Caroline Shenton outlined the considerable difficulties and challenges raised by housing the bicameral Parliamentary Archive in the Victoria Tower. One tiny lift, inadequate conservation /restoration areas, risks of substantial collection damage and destruction through accident or incident, poor public access and engagement with the Archive. A decision is anticipated shortly on the future of the Archives, ranging from do nothing, relocation to a new Archive space, or more ambitious plans for an Archive and Parliamentary Engagement Centre with a regional location. A move out of Victoria Tower could potentially free up 7% of the Parliamentary Estate. One to watch!

Other sessions demonstrated recent changes within the Division. "Are MPs customers? The House of Commons Library experience" hinted at the significant cultural change processes undertaken. Less "gentlemen's club" and more about supporting the information needs of elected members and their staff. Understanding library users' needs, and working to fulfil these needs as effectively as possible. To my mind, that the question ever needed asking, indicates just how significant the cultural journey has been. Similarly, reorganisation of the Division's Research Teams prompted staff to audit researchers' information searching confidence on three-point scale and to survey needs and awareness of information resources available to them. The Research Information Service now provide a programme of support and sessions, and their co-location with the research teams provides for new opportunities to strengthen and develop these links and offers. We also heard of the first proactive pilot with public libraries for the Parliament Public Enquiries Public Information Group. An enhanced offer for Parliament Week (October 2016) will be available. Reminders of the balanced, impartial, clear and definitive House of Commons Library Briefing Papers, which are freely available via the web, were also made at several points.

Delegates were also treated to opportunities to view an exhibition of historical materials from the Library. This included hands-on access to early copies of Punch, the London Illustrated News, parliamentary debate reports, constituency boundary change maps, deposited papers, as well as images of the Commons Library over time, and much more. The Portcullis House venue provided access to a selection of the Palace of Westminster art collections with notable portraits and bust sculptures of MPs past and present. Staff from the various teams and services were also available for one-to-one discussions. The lightning talks had raised a range of queries and comments and this was the ideal setting in which to delve deeper and to share experiences.

Westminster Hall. Source: Flickr by Nathan.  Licensed for reuse under CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Equipped with revised understanding of the House of Commons Library, the afternoon's tours provided opportunities to contextualise and deepen this knowledge. The troglodyte experience of walking from Portcullis House underneath Bridge Street to arrive directly within the Parliamentary Cloisters provided an impactful opening scene. The vastness of Westminster Hall, with its palpable sense of being witness and location to history in the making, and the ornate beauty of St Stephen's Hall, wowed delegates.  An opportunity to sample the iconic green bench seats of the Division Lobby, matching those found in the Commons Chamber, were too good to miss, and provided a comfortable juncture on which to consider bill, debate and voting procedures. Our tour continued with a detailed visit to the Commons Chamber, and to the majestic Lords Chamber.

St Stephen's Hall. Source: Shakespearesmonkey via Flickr Licensed for reuse under CC-BY 2.0.

The Commons Library sits alongside of the Commons Chamber with views to the south over the Thames. It is therefore ideally placed as an accessible and welcoming space for MPs. The collection rooms retain their air of "gentlemen's club", but this seems fitting and conducive to productive reading, research, cogitation, and in some cases, relaxation / recouperation. The collections reflected recent and historical political interests, although increasingly inter library loans rather than purchase seem to be used in meeting the requests of Members for items which aren't currently held by the Library. Such thriftiness of resource sharing calls on libraries of the House of Lords, the conjoined public libraries of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, The London Library, Chatham House Library and The British Library. In addition to the book collections, the hard copy newspaper and periodical collections are well used, supported by a wide variety of electronic resources (in some cases jointly procured with the House of Lords Library). Enquiry desks are prominently and welcomingly positioned, and the well resourced Reference Room can be used by MPs' staff members.

Review of the quiz answers provided further opportunity to probe and check our acquired knowledge. A recap from Nick Poole (CEO, CILIP) rounded off the day. We had all benefitted greatly from the day, from the collective networking amongst the 60 delegates from  a wide range of libraries, locations and experience. The day had also clearly demonstrated the centrality of accurate, impartial, comprehensive and up to date information to the effective functioning of democracy.

"There are four KEY elements to The UK Parliament: Commons, Lords, Monarchy .... and librarians" Nick Poole, CEO, CILIP.

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