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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

Building Member Understanding and Support for the Parliamentary Library

Nick Bannenberg
Parliamentary Librarian,
Queensland, Australia


Parliamentary Libraries do not exist as discrete entities: their raison d'etre is to provide an information service to the organ of government which funds them. Striving for, and actually delivering an excellent information service must be the primary goal of the Library's chief executive, but it is almost equally important to convince the Library's major clients, the Members, whether they acces s services directly or through their aides and assistants, of the quality and dependability of the services they are receiving. As public scrutiny of administrative costs becomes more intense, funding for the Library is ever more dependent on the perception that it is performing effectively and delivering good value for the money outlaid for its upkeep. Hence it is essential that as many Members as possible have a clear understanding of the positive value to them individually of the Library's services, in the expectation that this will engender continuing support for the Library. This paper discusses a number of ways in which this may be achieved in libraries large and small.


As public scrutiny of administrative costs becomes more intense, funding for the Library is ever more dependent on the perception that it is performing effectively and delivering good value for the money outlaid for its upkeep. Hence it is essential that as many Members as possible have a clear understanding of the positive value to them individually of the Library's services, in the expectatio n that this will engender continuing support for the Library. This paper discusses a number of ways in which this may be achieved in libraries large and small.

Inherent in the title of this paper is an assumption that Members give greater support to the Parliamentary Library if they have a better understanding of it and the services it offers them. Unfortunately this is a fallacy. A better understanding of the Library should result in support if the services offered are largely meeting expectations of a majority of Members, and can be seen to be delive red in a professional and cost-effective manner, but other factors -- political, economic and personal -- can intervene. Libraries in general tend to conform with mores of the wider society of which they are a part, so it is not surprising that in the present "user pays" scenario, many feel obliged to adopt the current commercial practice of publicising the advantages that clients derive from continued patronage. "Society allows businesses to operate only so long as the businesses make a contribution to the member s of that society. By producing and marketing desired goods and services....they create what economists call utility, which may be defined as the want-satisfying power of a product or service."(1)

Members of Parliament seem to have an almost inexhaustible appetite for information, indeed their very survival can depend on having the right information at the right time. They do not really mind who supplies this need, so long as their wants are fulfilled promptly, accurately, and appropriately. The Library is, as we are fully aware, far from being the sole information source for Members.(2) On the other hand, funding for the Library represents a significant proportion of the total institutional budget. Hence it is vital to the Library's survival that Members generally are aware of the utility to them of the services provided.

There is no reason why the principle of "compete or perish" should be any less applicable to Parliamentary Libraries than it is to other businesses or service organisations. In fact there is a certain logic in expecting that we be judged on the same basis as our clientele, who are given a short time to produce a desired result, and replaced if they seem to have failed. Indeed they are frequentl y replaced even if they do succeed, if sufficient voters subsequently change their collective mind about the desirability of the result produced. As everyone knows, a key factor in politics is not whether something is being achieved, but whether the voters are persuaded that it is. Carrying the analogy further, clients must be convinced that it is not only in their interests to support the produ ct the research unit provides -- a personalised, prompt, and effective information service -- but that it is vital to their successful operation. Any real or potential problems interfering with that goal must be overcome wherever possible.

Building Understanding of the Library

No matter how highly thought of a Parliamentary Library may be, it is important that its current clients are reminded from time to time of the contribution it makes to their endeavours. In effect it may take only one or two elections to change the representation in a Parliament, resulting in the need to start from scratch to communicate this message. A corollary to this is the importance of maintaining an apolitical service, concentrating on serving the individual Member, within the guidelines laid down by the majority who control the kinds of services to be offered. While this may make the task somewhat harder, it does alleviate the risk of decimation of the Library, or at the least, of large numbers of its personnel, as one party or the ot her succeeds at the polls. Members should be totally confident that their requests for information will not be communicated to opponents, whether outside or inside their own party. Indeed this professional confidentiality is one of the key tenets of the service, and a major advantage to Members in supporting an independent Library. Assuming that a particular Library is offering effectively a nd efficiently run services within the funding available, and is able to compete favourably with alternative information sources, what are the ways in which it can bring home this message to its clients, in an endeavour to attract and consolidate support? Obviously any opportunities which arise for formal or informal promotion should be seized, but there are also specific strategies to consider:

Orientation programs -- Programs for newly elected Members, which may or may not form part of an overall introduction to the legislature and its services, offer the chance to arrange more personal in-depth tours of the library at a later date and allow the new Member to become acquainted with key library staff and how they can help;

Professional presentations -- These may be used in the orientation process, but may be of continuing use later. They can make use of overhead projectors, coordinated 35 mm slides and voiceover, or, as is the case with the superb production of the House of Commons Library, a professional videotape.(3)

Associated or complementary printed material -- It is useful to have coloured (possibly glossy) brochures, to reinforce the message of the professional nature of the services offered. This can take the form of a combined "Guide to...", with a list of contact names and telephone numbers, or may relate to specific aspects of the service. Such publications are not only helpful as handouts in ori entation programs, but serve as a future guide.

Information releases on Library activities -- These need to be succinct, eye-catching sheets issued at reasonably infrequent intervals, and preferably containing some information of direct benefit to the Member.

Seminars on topics of current interest -- Seminars are open to Members, if not specifically organised for them. It is feasible to arrange for guest lecturers with the requisite degree of expertise to present seminars at no cost to the Library. The difficulty lies in finding an appropriate time for sufficient Members to attend.

Traditional service bulletins -- These include compilations such as lists of new acquisitions, indexed and abstracted journal articles, SDI (Selective Dissemination of Information) bulletins, et cetera. Promotion within the wider community can also have a positive impact. By helping to shape perception of the Library within, for example, the profession, staff morale can be enhanced and desirable candidates attracted to vacancies, who, in turn can add to the professional image of the Library. The enhanced reputation of the Library can contribute to a more favourable opinion from Members, but may also lead to greater use of the Library. Favourable publicity plays an integral part in acquisition and maintenance of reputation (something which is easier to lose than acquire), and intelligent promotion of the organisation has its place in this strategy. Accompanying these positive outcomes are potential disincentives which should be considered, and where necessary avoided.

Lack of promotion can result in dwindling awareness of the value of the services offered, consequent decline in use, and subsequent marginalisation of the Library;

Absence of the stimulation of continuing reassessment of and challenge to existing practices may lead to stagnation, since it is more comfortable to preserve the status quo than struggle to devise and implement new or better ways of providing services;

Rapid technological and social changes have greatly affected information science, and failure by the Library to show customers effective utilisation of this new technology and how it assists the Member to cope, in turn, with the information explosion raises questions of competency;

Absence of concise, well reasoned, persuasive, factual arguments promoting use of the Library may well demonstrate to clients the inability to provide similar information on their behalf, with resultant under-utilisation.

Identifying Potential Difficulties

Assuming that these propositions demonstrate the necessity for a promotional program of some sort for the Parliamentary Library, the precise nature of which will be determined by a number of differing local factors, it is politic to be aware that such a seemingly innocent course of action can be fraught with dangers which may not be immediately apparent.

Be aware of the Library's status in the Legislature, and the sensitivity of others. A major promotion of the Library may best be undertaken in conjunction with some degree of support from an influential number of legislators. A Library committee may qualify for this role, but other groups may be available and/or more motivated. Librarians should never underestimate the peculiar jealousies which our esoteric workplace may foster in its various executive arms.

It is possible that expenditure of funds on promotion may lead to opposition on the grounds of "reckless" disbursement of hard won funds for non-essential purposes, even though lack of funding may be the major reason for the promotion.

Promotional campaigns must not unduly affect Members' available time, or they run the risk of incurring a contrary result to that intended. One must tread a narrow path between making sure the customer is adequately informed of a given situation, and engendering accusations of boring and time-wasting overkill.

Try to avoid the danger of falling short of a professional standard of presentation, whether it be caused by lack of resources (fiscal or personnel), or through ignorance or inexperience.

Recognise the peril of not being able to attain or maintain the level of service promised especially if the campaign is successful in achieving its objectives. From being understanding, patient, and sympathetic about a work force that is really being stretched to cope with demand, a formerly supportive user can become demanding and critical when additional assistance does not satisfy raised expe ctations.

Be mindful of the existence of interests which may at times be in direct competition with the Library, and which will maintain a watching brief on its activities. Where there is an opportunity to influence the Library's principal clientele --the politicians, towards greater support for alternative information providers, a more public profile may well be used to point up the resources provided t o the Library and its contribution to the political debate. Of course the same tactics may well be used if the Library does not adopt a high enough profile, so it is a matter of professional judgement as to what the public image of the Library should be.

Evaluation of Service/performance Measurement

As was stated at the beginning, promotion alone will not in itself result in higher usage or greater support for the Library: it must be coupled with perceived excellence of service and cost-effective use of resources. To this end it is essential to evaluate initiatives and assess their impact on the consumer.

It is at this point that the interface between market research and management becomes apparent. Both concepts are reliant on acquisition and analysis of information about client acceptance of the product -- on the one hand viewed from the production aspect (are we performing efficiently and effectively?), and on the other hand viewed in relation to consumption (are the services offered heavily in demand?). Increasingly libraries, and, more to the point, Parliamentary Libraries, are recognising the value of surveying users to ascertain their assessment of services offered, and to get feedback on desirable innovations or modifications, as an adjunct to more traditional methods of gauging client acceptance and dissatisfaction, ranging from informal suggestions from users to directives fr om the employers. The best known (and most recent) Australian surveys have been carried out under the direction of Ed Parr,(4) with other smaller and less formal surveys in a number of Parliaments.(5) The process is fairly neatly illustrated by this diagram from Contemporary Marketing.(6)

Information Needs and the Marketing Process

A survey of all Queensland State Parliamentarians was carried out in 1991, as part of an investigation by an outside body assessing the information needs of Members.(7) Subsequently the Library has undertaken annual questionnaires on customer satisfaction with its major services, evaluating responses together with suggestions for change or additional requirements. Spot checks are regularly made via telephone to elicit satisfaction with specific requests. Performance measurement tends to confront us with the age-old problem of rationalising the qualitative with the quantitative aspects of performance. It is helpful if the Library has an effective Management Information System to provide specific data necessary to measure trends, but there still needs to be informed evaluation of it in terms of quality of response. The Queensland Parliamentary Lib rary relies heavily on its own fully integrated information management system, which allows management to continuously monitor many of the vital statistics of daily operations. Detailed dissection of such diverse information as, for example, ongoing expenditure by category; inquiries by requester, responder, subject or deadline; work output by category or individual; correlation of demand by subj ect with acquisition; and serial titles most frequently indexed, are routinely available.

This information plays an integral part in weekly meetings of the Library's senior management, ensuring that they are all aware of important operational indicators, and can relate activities within each section to the overall goals set for the organisation. This aspect of management is at least of equal importance in achieving the optimal and effective output which contributes greatly to the goo d reputation of the establishment.

Concluding Comments

This paper has, for the purposes of encouraging further debate, attempted to briefly outline a number of alternative promotional strategies as a means of engendering substantial and continuing support for the Library. The opinion has been expressed that favourable promotion is not of itself an adequate strategy. The desired image cannot be divorced from the delivery of services; and the corolla ry applies in that we are frequently judged as much on style as substance.

In dealing with this topic the author has been aware that, as with most generalities addressing situations common to Parliamentary Libraries, there are considerable differences arising from wide variation in development and impact of local conditions on particular institutions. What is normal or possible in one environment may be bizarre or impossible elsewhere! The concepts addressed in this paper draw on experience gleaned from some twenty-five years of association with Australasian legislative libraries, (with staff establishments ranging from 9 to 180), and observation of a number of Parliaments in other parts of the world.

There has been a brief discussion of the perceived need to publicise these institutions, together with some examples of ways in which this can be achieved, within the confines of straitened financial circumstances and very modest staff establishments. Because these libraries fall into the category of publicly funded, non-profit service organisations, there is a continuing obligation to justify e xpenditure involved in their operation.

It follows from this that services must be delivered as efficiently and effectively as possible; the aim should be greater achievement for less outlay. However, where productivity has peaked, or provision of additional or improved services is contemplated, this can only be achieved through additional funding, which will in turn be dependent on the Library's image within the organisation and on i ts effectiveness in selling the benefits of such a service.

In such a situation the finite and limited nature of the resources available to the library is the most significant hurdle to be overcome. All the technical knowledge of marketing and promotion which the chief executive may have, coupled as it may be with appropriate corporate strategies and private sector techniques, will not overcome these limitations once productivity has peaked. Past this point unsustainable workloads and ensuing stress soon lead to resentment which destroys morale and productivity, resulting in work to rules, and widespread resignations.

Unfortunately, getting this message across to the funding authorities who form part of the clientele expecting better or extended services, is, of itself, a major promotional exercise. Equally important (and difficult) is to ensure that the clients understand that the exercise is one of communication, not "empire building." To some extent, the smaller the organisation the more the Librarian is involved with the day-to-day tasks necessary to keep the organisation operational, leaving minimal time for promotional activities.

Despite the difficulties imposed by the combination of factors already mentioned, the most inhibiting factor facing the Librarian is inertia. It is relatively easy to be seduced by the thought that given the difficulties that our unique environment presents, it is not worth making the extra effort necessary to break the nexus. Even in the face of an apathetic clientele, a committed Librarian can generate interest in the product by imaginative use of affordable commodities, and, in the last resort, personal selling of the service to individual clients.

However, in the final assessment, the greatest asset that the Parliamentary Library possesses is, as we all realise, neither the collection nor the electronic and other technology we routinely avail ourselves of to improve presentation and delivery of services, but the skills and strength of its personnel. Unless the staff are kept informed and involved, share a common goal, and support the mean s by which the objective is to be achieved, there is no point in proposing better or extended services to the customer. After all, they will be the ones experiencing the direct impact of increased use and accelerated productivity.


1. Boone, L.E. and Kurtz, D.L. Contemporary Marketing. 2nd edition. Hinsdale, Illinois, Dryden Press, 1977. p.6.

2. For the most recent alternatives see discussions on Internet, prompted by inquiries from legislators in Minnesota on the need for discrete libraries and physical premises or the in the electronic age (pubIII@nysernet.org/id:<9402140139.AA24086.. Jeffrey A. Scherer), which are pertinent to this point. See also the supportive article by Jane Smith on misconceptions by some about "Digital Librar ies" replacing librarians and libraries. Internet World January/February 1994, pp. 86 89.

3. Great Britain. Central Office of Information. The House of Commons Library. London. CFL Vision, 1987.

4. Parr, Edward A. et a. Pathways to Information: The Information, Policy Analysis & Advisory Needs of Senators & Members. Canberra, AGPS, 1991; and Parr, Edward A. Timely, Relevant and Comprenhensive: The Parliamentary Library and the Information Needs of Members. Sydney, N.S.W. Parliamentary Library, 1990.

5. New South Wales Parliamentary Library Commitee of Review. Review of the Service of the New South Wales Parliamentary Library. Sydney, Parliamentary Library, 1987; and Brudenall, M. J. Tasmanian Parliamentary Library Survey (Consultancy Report, 1988).

6. Boone, L.E. and Kurtz, D.L. op. cit. p. 66.

7. Queensland. Electoral and Administrative Review Commission. Report on Review of Information and Resource Needs of Non-Government Members of the Queensland Legislative Assembly. Brisbane, Govt. Printer, December 1991.