Unlike our usual forays into traditional working libraries, the House of Commons Library Open Day was a finely orchestrated day of conference style active listening intended for Information Professionals working across a range of different organisations. The majority of the day was not spent in the library itself but rather in the very swish location of Portcullis House. Good points about location: Indoor trees and frequent biscuit breaks. Bad points: Plethora of Margaret Thatcher statues and not being spending more time in the actual library.
The morning kicked off with an interesting overview of the library’s history and aims by Director of Research Services, Bryn Morgan. Bryn emphasised the House of Commons library’s attention to giving “specialist active advice” (a stipulation first coined in 1945 with the unprecedented appointment of two assistant librarians). This “active advice” appears to be most regularly demonstrated through their extensive research service, with subject specialists answering enquiries from MPs and their staff often within one working day, and always within ten. Bryn explained that the enquiry research service operates to a number of standards that assures its quality and popularity: specialist knowledge, confidentiality, the ability of staff members to synthesise data from different sources, and having a strong training arm intent on improving the Information Literacy of the individual service user. Aside from this “bespoke” and reactive service, Bryn’s department also focuses on actively and pre-emptively informing its client base through the publication of Research Papers and Standard Notes. These publications vary in length, with Research Papers tending to be more in-depth analyses of all major pieces of legislation and policy and Standard Notes being shorter compilations of FAQs and outlines of topical issues. These documents are made available on the House of Commons intranet and also in hard copy in the library foyer.
After Bryn, we had a series of other talks by other members of staff. Rather than giving a blow by blow account of each of them (apart from anything else many of us were dozing off by 11) I’ll just pick out a few salient points. As with most libraries, the House of Commons library is no different in facing financial challenges and Katharine Marke, Head of Library Resources Section, explained how she has dealt with this by limiting electronic and paper journal subscriptions. Otherwise, we had a talk by Gemma Webb about parliamentary outreach and the ways in which the House of Commons Information Office interacted with the world outside Westminster. This was the point at which my notes trailed into total nothingness but I do remember seeing photos of the Speaker John Bercow posing awkwardly with school children...Basically the marketing aim of the information office was to proactively engage with the public in order to break down the barrier perceived to exist between parliament and the rest of the country.
Less said about the quiz on parliament the better (5/20...not proud) so onwards to the tours after lunch. For the first time in the day we actually got to see the reference library itself. Unfortunately because parliament was in recess over half-term there was no hope of being called a pleb but nevertheless it was fascinating to see where our mps and their staff do a lot of their work. Main observations from the tour included noting that MPs get great quality stationary complimentary on each table, there are unreasonably low green leather armchairs to sit on in front of the fireplace, and also that noise is frowned upon so much in the furthermost reading room that even laptops are banned because of the din created by keyboard tapping. The library has a fantastic virtual tour on the website so anyone that missed the trip can experience the place here.
We rounded off the day with a tour around the chambers of the House of Commons and Lords for good measure. While fascinating to see, by this point in the day I think we were all a bit weary – not to mention chilly – and looking forward to debriefing in the pub with the other trainees! All in all, while I was really glad to have gone and could see myself enjoying the style and content of work performed by librarians at the House of Commons, I felt that it could’ve been better appreciated over a shorter period of time than over a whole day and with perhaps a more interactive tour rather than the long conference style morning. Obviously the library isn’t in a position to put on tours for small groups throughout the year so necessarily needs one big event for a larger number of delegates but still I think a bit of the content got lost among the long speeches. That said, it’s a unique and fast paced place to work and is definitely worth a visit if you get the opportunity again!