Conference 2018: House of Commons Librarian keynote
Penny Young, House of Commons Librarian for the past three years, delivered the first keynote speech of CILIP Conference 2018 – calling for all library and information professionals to promote a healthy and active democracy.
Penny leads a team of 180 staff, including library and information workers, statisticians, subject specialists and lawyers. All of the Commons Library staff support MPs and their researchers and assistants through confidential enquiries (more than 30,00 each year) and 900 briefings, which are not only open to MPs and Members of the House of Lords but also to the general public.
She said the library service is “at the heart of supporting democracy” and adds that “the enduring skills of librarians” are needed to help achieve that goal.
MPs are provided with a confidential service, allowing them to research any subject in confidence. And while Penny says some use the library as a way of gathering evidence for political point-scoring, the majority of the enquiries are “noble” in their intentions. From supporting constituency case work to preparing for debates and votes to sitting on select committees and enquiries, the library service allows MPs to be fully prepared.
She said that queries on case work – described as the social work of last resort – often provides an insight into emerging trends. As more and more MPs come to the library with similar and related issues form their constituency, the library staff can spot issues that are becoming hot topics. They are then able to prepare public briefing documents, which can help to set the political agenda.
Recent examples include the problem some new home owners are facing trying to get problems fixed under the 10-year building guarantee that is attached to new-build houses. This has led to the government thinking about creating a new ombudsman for the industry.
Looking to the future and the library is thinking about digital distribution and improving the channels. Allied to this is an attempt to reach out from beyond Parliament to the public – through a new user-friendly website and social media channels.
The library is also increasing its data science and data management, helping to put data to use both within Parliament and to the general public. The move is about making sure the vast amounts of data that are available to the House of Commons provide real value and are not lost through inaccessibility.
Penny says that the library has been a victim of its own success, to some degree, adding: “We have a problem sustain success. It’s a really difficult service to run and demand is rising and the complexity of enquiries is rising.”
That means the library is looking at how it can manage demand, while continuing to deliver a high-quality service to its users.
A final issue for Penny and her staff to contend with over the coming years is renovation and refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster. While this will place a huge strain on the library service – it will have to vacate its current home for a number of years – it also offers an opportunity for the service to reimagine itself and the services it offers.
Penny called for library and information professionals from other sectors to think about how they could help the UK remain “a thriving parliamentary democracy”, saying that a well-informed, active public was crucial. She pointed to public library’s roles in shaping citizenship and political engagement; the opportunity for school librarians to work with students on democracy; and for HE librarians to encourage academics to take part in Parliamentary evidence gathering by sharing their research with MP-led inquiries.