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Using the Library of Parliament

By Erik J. Spicer

Most journalists spend a lot of time cultivating sources; few cultivate the Parliamentary Library. It appears at times that only the more erudite of journalists avail themselves of this major convenient source. Possibly others are using the Unites States Information Service Library, even more conveniently located in the National Press Building. (One wonders if any other government has placed a foreign library in so advantageous a position.) Nevertheless, many journalists over the years have praised our services, acknowledging our assistance in their books, in their letters, and in conversation. You yourself just may find that, in the long run, tapping the library's services pays off in terms of substance and accuracy, though not necessarily in sensation.

The key to getting the most out of the Library of Parliament is to anticipate your needs. Our resources are vast and the staff is very busy, so if it's at all posible, don't wait until the last moment. If you make an effort to anticipate areas in which stories may break, the Library staff can help you gather background knowledge beforehand. That'll give you an edge over some of your more harried or more superficial colleagues. Or if you know you are to prepare a series on the "Tolls on the St. Lawrence Seaway", let us know as soon as possible. We can help you put together a reading list or chart a research path, among other things.

Our extensive services are available on a confidential basis in English and French, tailored to meet individual needs. Library publications provide studies of policy issues, reading lists and current files of articles of special interest to parliamentarians. We provide research assistance, information and other services to parliamentarians and their staffs, parliamentary committees, associations and delegations, senior Senate and House of Commons officials, the Governor-General, Privy Councillors, and Justices of the Supreme and Federal Courts as well as to Press Gallery members. A staff of more than 240 librarians, research officers, technicians and support personnel answered more than 80,000 inquiries and prepared more than 2,500 research papers for parliamentarians in 1987-88.

The library has two service branches: Information and Technical Services, and Research.

The Information and Technical Services Branch, with 45 professional librarians, anticipates and responds to requests for information and prepares retrieval and reference aids. Its role is to develop, acquire, make accessible, conserve and maintain library collections, three branch libraries, a reading room, the main Library and the Parliamentary Reading Room. The staff alerts clients to sources of new and newly-acquired information, including books, serials, reports, briefs, parliamentary papers, government publications, databases, press clippings, wire services, microforms, videotapes, audio tapes, and maps. In addition to Canadian federal, provincial, and territorial publications, the Library has British Parliamentary Papers of both the House Of Lords and the House of Commons, French parliamentary debates since 1945 (older ones have been turned over to the National Library), the United States Congressional Record, and many other Congressional publications, as well as material on other foreign parliaments and parliamentarians.

Our Clipping File is another unique and valuable Library resource. More than 20 daily newspapers are scanned for selections to add to the nearly 3,000 current files on topics of interest to parliamentarians, including files on each M.P. and all bills before either chamber. In addition, we have a little-known collection of manuscripts/typescripts of books about Parliament written by parliamentarians and others, including journalists.

Microfilms and microfiches, audio and videotapes and optical disks, among other contemporary information storage and retrieval systems, augment the Library's print collection. Most of the Library's collection is available online. More than 1,000 outside online databases also can be accessed through the Library. The only way to truly appreciate all this is to use it. Those who do find it surprisingly adequate.

The Research Branch, established in 1964 in a small way, now comprises 55 professional research officers-- including lawyers, economists, political, social and natural scientists--and support staff. Its mandate is to assist MPs, Senators, parliamentary committees, associations and delegations in preparing research studies and technical briefings on request, and to initiate and prepare background papers and reviews of current issues. Services to parliamentary committees include the assignment of subject specialists, recommendations on selection of witnesses, provision of briefing material, analytical studies and oral presentations, collations of analysis of evidence, and assistance in drafting reports. Although we cannot make the services of the research branch available to non-parliamentarians, members of the Press Gallery may request copies of the Branch's Publications List and of specific publications dealing with national and international issues of interest to federal parliamentarians. Others may obtain copies of these invaluable studies from the Canadian Government Publishing Centre, part of the Department of Supply and Services.

Despite automation, the important past is still largely locked in print. To understand the present and occasionally provide guidance for the future, most journalists, whether TV, radio or print, could benefit from a greater familiarity with Library resources. Our staff is the greatest resource of all. You can really depend on the professional services of this or other libraries, even more than you can depend on your friends and their memories. Your time will seldom be better spent.

Erik.J.Spicer is the Parliamentary Librarian.

Strictly speaking, as far as journalists are concerned, the Library of Parliament is open to only members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. So if you need parliamentary information fast, and you are not a card carrying Gallery member or on special assignment for an MP, you're probably well-advised to stick to local sources, like legislative or law libraries.

But that doesn't mean the accompanying article should be of interest only to Press Gallery members. If you're onto a serious political or parliamentary story and you've exhausted local sources, you may well be able to access the services of this wonderful facility. Try giving your Ottawa bureau a call. Maybe a Press Gallery member there can help you dig up what you need. This article will give you some idea of what the Library of Parliament can do for the enterprising journalist--Ed.

This article originally appeared in Sources, 23rd edition, Spring 1989.

See also:
Digging Up Ottawa's Gold
Researching on Parliament Hill
Getting the Goods: Information in B.C.
Finding Answers: Approaches to Gathering Information
An Intelligent Guide to Successful Online Research
Search Engines
Life In the Fast Lane: E-Prints Speed Spread Of Research Results
An Intelligent Guide to Intelligent Research

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