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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

The Parliamentary Library of the Future

William Robinson, Associate Director, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, U.S.A.


In the world of Parliaments, legislative staff are brutally pragmatic. It comes from the environment in which they live and work. Parliamentary librarians and researchers are a bit more visionary a nd gentle than their other legislative colleagues perhaps because of their slight insulation from fighting the front line battles of partisan warfare, and perhaps because of their education and con stant contact with the outside world of ideas. Nevertheless, skepticism and critical thinking are their forte, and it makes the task of discussing the future of parliamentary libraries a rather daun ting task.

Yet, I have been an outspoken critic of "futures research." So what meaningful statements can be made about the Parliamentary Library of the Future, and on what credible foundation of fact can these speculations be built? Forces Shaping the Future

While critical of the more impressionistic tools of futures research, I am an admirer of strategic planning and the more modest notion of "environmental scanning." This involves observing events and forces around us and projecting them forward in order to anticipate their impact. While this is still a very subjective undertaking, it is based on empirical forces and events that others can evalu ate to assess the probability of any speculations based on them. In that spirit, I offer some personal impressions about the key forces impinging on parliamentary libraries and the effects they migh t have on our activities. Space limitations permit only a skeleton outline of the trends and forces that are now hard at work shaping our future. The following political, social, and technical infl uences can already be felt:

The Third Wave of Democratic Revolutions, described by Samuel P. Huntington, as advancing the value of democratic institutions like legislatures, began in 1974. This largely peaceful revolution reach ed a crescendo with the metaphoric rending of the Iron Curtain and the actual physical destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the collapse of communism and the centrifugal dispersion of the former Soviet Union. The imperative toward democracy will shape discussions about the relative effectiveness of political institutions and will raise expectations about legislatures.

The Telecommunications Revolution has already transformed the world into a global village, where events are experienced almost simultaneously by all. This revolution makes the sharing of ideas and i nformation feasible, and makes technology an important contributor to increased openness of legislative activity and efficiency.

The Globalization of the Economy has subjected all institutions (public as well as private) to the forces of competition, and the imperative to downsize and pursue value added activities or perish.

Trends in existing institutional patterns and practices will continue to govern our behavior and spread quickly and widely (especially since parliamentary libraries constitute a tightly knit communit y for communicating change as in the Parliamentary Library Section of IFLA and regional associations).

Analysis of Trends in Parliamentary Libraries These forces operate singly and in combination to shape the Parliamentary Library of the future. Parliamentary libraries are dynamic institutions that m ust evolve with the changing needs of their client legislatures. Change is, in fact, one of the dominant themes in current library life. A number of trends have been observed, as follows.

Trend #1:

The number of active parliamentary libraries and research services will grow and the interaction among all parliamentary libraries will increase. Nations around the world are shedding authoritaria n structures and launching more democratic and assertive legislatures. In turn, older parliamentary libraries are reaching out to their new colleagues and, in the process of sharing their skills and technology, are finding their own activities filled with new meaning and energy. As one example, the Parliamentary Libraries Section of the International Federation of Library Associations and Ins titutions (IFLA) has benefited from dynamic new librarians and legislative researchers from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Albania, Latvia, Lithuan ia, Estonia, Croatia, and Georgia to name but a few from the democratic revolutions in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe alone. As new networks of relationships are constructed, the old n etworks are strengthened and the need for collaboration is apparent. The result has been to enliven the pace of cooperation and exchange among parliamentary libraries, and to intensify the focus on developing new, more effective ways to serve their respective legislatures.

Trend #2:

The parliamentary library of the future will be far more cost conscious and well managed than in the past. Legislatures around the world are feeling the pinch of constrained resources, as world trad e patterns compress the world and spread a universal impetus toward more cost effective performance for all institutions. Parliamentary libraries, in turn, are increasingly discussing "downsizing" and generally trying to do more with less in terms of resources. The common interest in effectiveness enhancing activities also promotes the desire to share ideas and related experiences with collea gues.

Trend #3:

Automation and telecommunications advances will have the greatest impact on how the parliamentary library of the future conducts its business. It is widely recognized that automation and telecommuni cations can enhance the effectiveness of parliamentary information enterprises significantly. Legislative applications include access to international news, compilations of statistics of other natio ns or regional organizations (like the European Parliament), laws and regulations in force, databases tracing the status of proposed legislation, public policy literature databases, etc. They also i nclude instantaneous information sources such as electronic mail, bulletin boards, and high speed fild transfer protocols for legislatures that are becoming increasingly comparative in their approach to problem solving.

It is possible that there will emerge even greater cooperative patterns among parliamentary libraries, with some libraries specializing in particular types of expensive books or library resources (CD ROMs and expensive serials) and sharing these electronically with their colleagues. The rising costs of books and serials will drive this specialization movement. The parliamentary library of the future will much of its material in digital form, will rely more on databases of current information, and will be able to send it to its legislative users electronically, or share it with other parl iamentary libraries around the world. Information can be stored digitally in optical disk or CD ROM form, which is also responsive to space concerns and preservation needs.

It is possible that material created for the legislature will be placed on the Internet at little or no cost and made available for other governments or researchers to share. As Fumihisa Nakagawa wi ll tell us, this is a plan of the National Diet Library of Japan. It will be an easier task to do comparative research and to make use of rare and specialized collections without damaging them or co mpeting with other users for the same resources. Such widespread availability of information from the legislature will also serve to promote democracy and could create broader understanding of and a ppreciation for the work of the legislature.

Trend #4:

Computers and computing will be omnipresent but invisible. The advent of the virtual library, virtual office, and ubiquitous computing are upon us. Before too long, we will participate in computer assisted remote conferences with participants in several different countries. We will "write" on notebooks that are in reality computers, and conduct joint drafting sessions with people that are not even in the same country. Legislative aides will routinely access large computer databases while the committee or plenary session is in process and do necessary formula calculations to answer the " what if" policy impact questions of the legislators almost at the same time as the questions are asked.

Trend #5:

Greater reliance will be placed on regional organizations of parliamentary libraries in the future. One of the most effective ways to share practical information and technology is through conference s and personal visits to the libraries of neighboring countries. This is the pattern followed by the Parliamentary Libraries Section of IFLA, which gathers once each year to share ideas for improvin g parliamentary information practices in their respective legislatures. However, the cost of travel to international conferences has become increasingly difficult to manage for many libraries, parti cularly in light of the fiscal squeeze on legislatures generally. As a result, there has been a trend toward the creation of regional associations of parliamentary libraries to lessen the distances and costs of exchanges.

Trend #6:

Research services will become more widespread and play an increasingly important role in the future. An interest in legislative research services has accompanied the development of active legislatur es in formerly authoritarian regimes. The focus is natural, because of the importance of research and information in asserting a larger role by the parliament. Moreover, that interest is kindled by emerging regime structures that are either presidential in structure or modified presidential (similar to the French model). This interest is primarily associated with the newer democratic nations, however. More established parliamentary systems seem to be content with services that do not place a heavy emphasis on research. Nevertheless, this is a closely knit community, and there will be c ontinuing discussions about the role of research and analysis in helping the legislature carry out its work and in establishing its proper place in the governance structure of the nation. It is diff icult to envision a legislature that lacks a research and analysis capability to cope effectively with increasingly complex issues. We will hear more on this subject from June Verrier.

Trend #7:

Parliamentary libraries of the future will be more closely tied to the leadership of the legislature as the library is driven to make its services more relevant to parliamentary activities. In orde r to demonstrate the relevance of the library or research service to the activities of the legislature, efforts will be made to link specific products and services of the library to the legislative a genda of the parliament, and to "track" documents those that follow the major issues of the parliament. This activity, already under way in some legislatures, will require regular dialogue with the leadership of the parliament. This dialogue will be part of an overall effort to obtain feedback on products of the library and will take many formats some of which are highlighted in Jennifer Tanf ield's paper such as periodic focus groups studying particular products and services, interviews and questionnaires, and regular contact with the leadership of both committees and the legislature as a body. If the parliamentary library is to protect its status of objectivity and service to the entire parliament, it must find mechanisms to ensure that the library's services are available for al l members and parties. A multi party oversight and policy committee of members representing all parties or factions in the legislature is one useful way to ensure the non partisan nature of services .

Trend #8:

More services will be focused on committees in the future. The forces that will propel the parliamentary library into closer contact with legislative leadership also will motivate it to provide more services for committees. This trend is already visible in Canada as Hugh Finsten will point out. To continue to enjoy financial support in times of fiscal stringency will require parliamentary lib raries to demonstrate their contribution to the important work of the legislature. This will take the form of additional work for the committees, as well as parliamentary leaders.

Trend #9:

Efforts will be made to move away from generic products ("workload managers"), in the direction of tailored products for the individual Member of Parliament. This effort, which is currently emphasiz ed by the Australian Parliamentary Research Service as June Verrier notes in her paper, will be driven by the same imperative to win support and demonstrate utility for the individual member. Howeve r, paying too much attention to individual members is resource intensive and will dilute the efficiency efforts of the agency. There is a natural tension between generic products (that are efficien t, but are not as targeted) and the hand tailored products that are much appreciated by the members but consume huge amounts of time. Achieving just the right balance is the goal of this movement.

It is difficult to perceive any patterns beyond these broad imperatives. Whatever patterns do emerge, it is likely that they will be quickly diffused into the parliamentary library environment, beca use of the professional linkages discussed above and the impetus to share information and developments widely. Specific products and services will gradually evolve from this mixing pot all in the interest of helping legislatures achieve their appropriate constitutional objectives in governance. Given recent developments, the role of legislatures is likely to be an increasingly and important one.