I had the good fortune of attending bits and pieces of the IFLA pre-conference here at the Library of Parliament. As the press release attests, Parliamentary Librarians from 40 countries attended the event to learn about the work of other legislative libraries, while having an opportunity to express their own achievements and concerns.
It was a great experience, and forced me to lift my head out of the reference-question-answering fog to consider some really interesting things:
Librarians in this field associate, more than anything else, with the other parliamentary librarians. It’s a pretty unique job field, to be sure, and they face different challenges and opportunities that other librarians. I’d venture to say that parliamentary libraries are more service-focused and research-intensive than most other library settings, and there’s lots more on the line every time we answer a reference question. What’s more, there are dozens (hundreds?) of employees at the Library of Parliament serving about 200 parliamentarians; that’s a pretty unique ratio among the library world!
World politics – those things we only really interact with when we read the paper or watch the news – have a real impact on the work and function of parliamentary libraries. In particular, I attended a discussion from Chilean and American librarians, and the current political climates of their prospective countries has dictated their own work, how they bargain for funding, and how they design or interpret their organizational missions. It can be very messy, but very interesting!
We also had the opportunity to listen to parliamentarians discuss what they are looking for from the Library of Parliament. Much of their recommendations focused on our need to embrace technological advancements (The Chilean Congressional Library had YouTube videos!!!); their need for information analysis and synthesis – at a time when we’re all experience information overload, MPs and Senators are even more bombarded with info-stuffs from each other, constituents, analysts, lobbyists and witnesses to committees, among others, so they need complex concepts made simple and comprehensive; at one point a Senator said, “It would be great if you guys could teach us how to use those databases so we didn’t have to ask you every time”…. I wanted to yell “INFORMATION LITERACY!”, but felt that would have been very poor manners… Essentially though, their needs are like just about any other library user-group: They want clear answers to their questions, they want enough information but not too much, they know how to use information technologies and would like us to know how to as well, and they want to be empowered through a greater understanding of the tools that help us find stuff. No surprise, but cool to hear from someone who decides federal policy.
Having a strong research team that is entirely nonpartisan, accessible, highly accurate and highly reputable in the eyes of both decision-makers and citizenry is integral to having a healthy democracy. Parliamentarians know that their in-house research teams will never be completely unbias, so they need a confidential service that provides sound research, timely assistance and clear answers to their questions. The fact that we’re trained to do that is VERY cool.