Friday, 4 April 2014

House of Commons Open Day for Librarians and Information Professionals

In February I was lucky enough to be able to attend the House of Commons Open Day for Librarians and Information Professionals. It was held in Portcullis House, across the road from the Houses of Parliament, and was well attended by librarians from all over the UK - I spoke to one who had come down from Manchester, and another who had flown from Belfast!

The day began with registration in the Macmillan Room, where most of the talks of the day were held. We were given an Introduction to the House of Commons Library by Patsy Richards, the Head of Customer Services. She explained that the Library was the Members' Library for the House of Commons - there is another for the House of Lords. The Library supports the work of MPs, helping them to hold the government to account by providing information on all manner of issues. The Library does not habitually help cabinet ministers, who have resources and researchers of their own, but helps to redress the balance by assisting backbench MPs and members of the opposition.

Some of the leaflets promoting what the Library offers

There are 60 specialists and information professionals working in research, providing information such as debate packs, Standard Notes (information about much-requested topics), research papers and personal briefings for individuals. Enquiries are kept confidential, so an MP is not able to ask directly what another has requested. The service can be very busy: on this particular day, which was a Wednesday, there were 89 queries due for a response on Friday.

Maintaining a level of impartiality in responses, particularly those involving controversial issues such as climate change, fox hunting and abortion, is very important, as is speed and clarity - information is often needed at short notice. Research papers and Standard Notes are made available online for ease of access.

The next talk was on Customer Services and it was given by Chris Sear, the Head of Front of House. The Customer Service team is a recent development in the Library, and the Front of House team has been reorganised, dealing directly with members. For instance, floorwalking, greetings and service promotion are all new innovations, while enquiry services, online services, information literacy training and loans are also dealt with. Chris also spoke about feedback: in the past surveys were used to gather feedback from users, but this was changed in 2012, and now feedback can be given via interview, Members' Committees or complaints (which tend to be IT-related).

Leaflets about the House of Commons Information Office

The role of library and information professionals in the House of Commons Library was delivered by Susannah Foulis, Head of Library Resources; Liz Marley, Thesaurus Editor, Indexing and Data Management Section; and Julia Keddie, Senior Library Executive, International Affairs and Defence Research Section. They talked about the variety of roles and responsibilities they had: library resources including both hard copy and online; the LMS and the catalogue; binding and conservation; and disaster planning. The Library holds nearly 260,000 bound volumes and 10,000 reference books, as well as 70 hard copy journals, over 1700 ejournals and 50 online subscription series including LexisNexis and Westlaw. The current main areas of development are ebooks, mobile resources and RDA. In particular, Susannah talked about her work with the varying resources, Liz spoke about her role managing, compiling and enhancing the development of vocabularies for Parliamentary search, while Julia discussed her role in research.

During the break there was a chance to look around the exhibition Aspects of Parliamentary History, introduced by John Prince, Head of the Reference Room. The exhibition, which was made up of many rare documents and interesting texts, contained journals and magazines, records of debates, examination of the role of many MPs (such as Chaucer, Sir Philip Sidney and Disraeli) as writers, documents such as constituency maps and electoral histories, cartoons and Parliamentary Committee records.

The exhibition led on nicely to the next session, which was on Parliamentary Archives and delivered by the Director, Adrian Brown. He talked about the management, preservation, access and research that went into ensuring the archives remain available for anyone who wants to use Parliament's records now or in the future. Funded by both Houses, the records are based in Victoria Tower and the holdings seem fascinating. Dating back to 1497, they include such things as the draft Declaration of Rights, Charles I's death warrant, the Articles of Union with Scotland and the House of Commons journal of 5th November 1605. The archives also hold collections relating to Parliament, such as information about the architecture of the buildings, some local and family history-related records (e.g. records of Papists), and personal papers from such figures as Lloyd George.

The archives also encompass the online world, which brings its own challenges: it needs to be ensured that relevant information is managed, captured and preserved. The Parliamentary web archive offers access to many kinds of electronic records, such as archived websites and Parliamentary papers. There is also an online catalogue, Portcullis, and a public services searchroom: an appointment is needed, but anyone can make enquiries via letter, fax, telephone or email.

Efforts are being made to connect Parliamentary archives with communities. Online exhibitions such as 'The Gunpowder Plot' and engagement via social media are helping to do this, as is the Living Heritage website which holds lots of archive materials. Publications such as Victoria Tower Treasures are also bringing the archives to a wider audience.

The last session before lunch was 'So You Think You Know About Parliament', delivered by Chris Weeds, Visitor Services Information Manager. This took the form of a quiz and was highly entertaining and informative - I clearly didn't know much about Parliament at all as I only got 6 out of 20! I learned some interesting snippets of information, including the year the first House of Commons Librarian was appointed (1818), and the only person who is allowed an alcoholic drink in the House of Commons - the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and then only during the budget speech.

After lunch it was time for the tours. We divided into groups to visit the Palace of Westminster; my group toured the Members' Library first.

After a fascinating tour of the Library, we were able to tour the rest of the Houses of Parliament, including Westminster Hall, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This was great - our guide really knew what he was talking about, and it was really interesting.

Owing to a mix up at the start of the tour, we arrived back to Portcullis House too late to see the Online Resources Demonstration. However, we were in time for the Q&A and Feedback session at the end.

Thanks to everyone involved for a really good day, and if you haven't been, I really recommend signing up next year.