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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Regional and Global Cooperation of the Future Among Parliamentary Libraries

Richard Paré
Library of Parliment
Ottawa, Canada


I. The Changing Role and Services of Libraries

The world is being transformed as we approach the millennium: economies, societies, politics, communications are in upheaval. Libraries and their services too are being transformed by new information demands, new media, and new economic realities. In the foreseeable future, change and transformation will dominate the landscape of the library profession.

To illustrate the extent of the change in libraries and their services in just the past twenty years, consider the invasion of libraries by new technology. Most libraries are now using, in one way or another, computer technology to improve services to their patrons and other libraries are scrambling to emulate them. In addition to books, newspapers, periodicals, microforms, video and audio-cass ettes, an increasing number of the world's libraries, including parliamentary libraries, have developed online catalogues and online bibliographical databases accessible by the user, and are beginning to exploit electronic information media: online full-text databases, CD-ROMs, and the Internet. It is likely that in the next decade, from storehouses of printed materials, libraries will become mo re and more storehouses of electronic knowledge. We can already see the outlines of the future virtual or digital library, where information and electronically stored texts will "travel" from computer to computer and where the majority of knowledge-retrieval operations will be initiated from a keyboard and a screen.

Indeed, the use of computers has already revolutionized the modus operandi in the delivery of information products for the library and research community.

The most recent new technology to affect the library community is the Internet. It is a huge conglomerate of electronic networks with an ever-growing number of users and participating computers. The Internet is made up of regional networks that agree to communicate using a common set of standards. The expanding development of Internet will facilitate telecommunications in world-wide interest c ommunities, will provide access to online data resources and databases on a scale hitherto undreamed of, and will create opportunities for the generation of huge masses of information. The Internet is the most valuable networking tool we have now for international and national resource sharing, as well as for the exchange of opinions and experiences among libraries and research groups. Peter Zh ou in a recent article(1) indicated that in China, our host country, several libraries, including the National Library of China in Beijing, the Beijing University Library, the Fudan University Library, and the Wuhan University Library, were using the Internet for electronic resources for Chinese studies.

Where will this all lead? Each country has its futurists who extrapolate on the forthcoming events and products that will shape our information society in the new millennium.

In the United States, Raymond Kurzweil in 1992 predicted the disappearance of the book by the mid-twenty-first century. He said that "the paperbook will be replaced by a category of software that we call virtual books."(2) Likewise, a prominent Canadian futurist, Frank Ogden, in his prophetically titled work The Last Book That You'll Ever Read, published in 1993, declares that "today Gutenberg- style publication -- printed books -- are doomed."(3) His argument is that the continued rise in the cost of paper, environmental concerns, and the growth of electronic publishing on computer disks or CD-ROMs will soon render paper books obsolete. In the same book, Ogden predicts the end of libraries because they must be accessed geographically, because their use is time-consuming when time is becoming a scarcer commodity, and because remote information access will become more readily available through a computer. And in a new book published just last year, entitled Navigating in Cyberspace, Ogden argues that with the development of more densely packed data storage a "12-inch disk can hold one million 300-page books."(4) With such capabilities for the portable storage of information, he concludes that in the next millennium libraries will no longer need a physical location. (Each copy of Ogden's most recent book, incidentally, contains a CD ROM with the full text of this and his previous title!)

Of course, most of us do not believe that all libraries will really disappear from the face of the earth, but the way in which they deliver services to their patrons will change significantly. As for the book, I doubt that it will disappear either, but with the passage of time it may become more and more a luxury or a leisure item, affordable only by the wealthy or by libraries.

The traditional functions of selection, cataloguing, processing, and dissemination of information will continue, but will be adapted to electronic and digital materials.

Due to restraint of financial resources, I also foresee the development of multidisciplinary library consortia in predetermined regions or service areas. In their book Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness and Reality, Crawford and Gorman suggest that "cooperative library ventures have existed effectively for many decades. What is new is the creation of innovative alliances to serve different needs , for instance multitype consortia with mutual borrowing privileges within an urban area."(5)

In the future, librarians will be asked to perform new and different tasks for their clientele. They will become more like teachers, navigators, surfers, and negotiators of information delivery. As for libraries, they will remain each country's political, social, economic, and cultural icons that will regroup and maintain the information resources of a country's values.

II. Parliamentary Libraries in Evolution

What will be the impact of these changes on parliamentary and legislative libraries? These libraries are strictly client service institutions, devoted primarily to the members of parliament or legislature and their staff, in some cases to other privileged users and the general public. As the Australian Parliamentary Librarian, Russell Cope, has said: "The future of parliamentary libraries is i nextricably linked with the future of Parliament."(6) The fundamental justification for their existence is that they meet the information and documentation needs (and in many cases the research and analysis needs) of Parliament, more effectively and efficiently than any available alternatives.

In many countries, the modern interventionist state has increased the volume and complexity of legislation exponentially. The range of specialized interests and policy fields has likewise expanded. Moreover, the growth in the size of government and a corresponding expansion in the needs of constituents for assistance from their parliamentary representatives have vastly increased the volume of i nformation and documentation required by parliamentary and legislative institutions.

At the same time, the emergence of the electronic media is making the activity of parliaments more immediate and widely subject to scrutiny by a public that is acquiring progressively higher levels of education and political sophistication. The expansion of electronic mail will also create more requests addressed directly to parliamentarians.

As a result of these trends, the information and documentation needs of parliamentarians will continue to grow, while the time available to them and their staff to obtain and assimilate information will steadily diminish.

To respond to these expanding needs of parliamentarians, in many countries parliamentary research and analysis services have been developed. Often these services have been incorporated within the parliamentary library service, for better cost efficiency. In Canada the Library of Parliament and two provincial legislative libraries have nonpartisan research services within the library.

As William Robinson observed in his presentation at the IFLA conference last year in Instanbul, "Research services will become more widespread and play an increasingly important role in the future."(7) Hugh Finsten noted at the same conference that "the policy of non-partisanship is a sine qua non for a parliamentary research service. With clients representing the broadest spectrum of viewpoint s, Members must feel confident that they are being served objectively."(8) An appropriate amalgamation or mix of library services and research analysis will remain, in my opinion, the most cost-effective and efficient combination to provide objective information and knowledge to individual members and committees of a parliament or a legislature. Party caucuses should continue to use the library services but should maintain their own more partisan research capacity for their members. I have already noted that the volume and complexity of legislative and policy input and output in parliamentary institutions will continue to increase. Parliaments will be affected by changing media technology, which will increase the number of information sources competing for influence on public opinion and the political process. Furthermore, for the foreseeable future global trends in inform ation and documentation may be expected to result in continuing growth in the demand for all research and information-related services, inside and outside Parliaments.

The acquisition of computer technology by parliamentarian's offices will enable them to do some initial database searching. This will increase the sophistication and complexity of the searching requirements referred to the library. For instance, in Canada, we have already noticed a trend over the last few years for factual and bibliographical information requests to stabilize or decline, while complex reference information requests have significantly increased.

Technology is also creating new categories of information (such as news groups on the Internet). The electronic information explosion means that more time must be spent in finding the information and deciding if it has permanent value for our collection; both the sheer mass of information and the frequency with which it is superseded will continue to pose unprecedented problems.

The parliamentary and legislative libraries are unique assets. These are the only institutions bringing together disparate skills to provide the range of services needed for legislators to meet the challenges of the information age. But in many countries today, the immediate challenge facing a parliamentary library is just to maintain high-quality services in the face of proliferation of inform ation sources, rapidly rising demand, and eroding budgets.

So, where are we headed in these stormy seas of change? While it is difficult to formulate with precision a long-term vision for our parliamentary libraries, we can indicate some current trends and some medium-term prospects, gazing from five to fifteen years ahead:

III. New Opportunities for Regional and Global Cooperation

How will the current evolution of parliamentary libraries affect our global and regional cooperation? I believe that new technology will build upon, not replace, our traditional modes of cooperation. The cooperation among parliamentary libraries has been flourishing for many decades. It has developed mainly through the networking of international and regional associations. The most important forum for our global cooperation is, of course, the Section of Parliamentary Libraries of IFLA, which functions as a center for direct communication and the initiation of cooperation between parliamentary and legislative libraries.

In the area of regional cooperation and library networking, there immediately come to mind the regional parliamentary library groups: the Association of Parliamentary Librarians of Australasia (APLA); The Association of Parliamentary Librarians of Asia and the Pacific; the Parliamentary Libraries of Nordic Countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) which first met in 1922; the Parliame ntary Libraries of South East Asia established in 1986; the Association of Parliamentary Librarians in Canada (APLIC/ABPAC) established in 1975, and most recently the Association of Parliamentary Librarians in Eastern and Southern Africa (APLESA), founded in 1994.

In Canada, APLIC/ABPAC was founded under the leadership of our then Parliamentary Librarian, Erik J. Spicer, and a few colleagues from the libraries of the provincial legislatures. The Association has met in Ottawa several times and meets every two years at a different provincial capital. The Association, which consists of the Parliamentary Librarian and the Legislative Librarians of the Provin ces and Territories, has as its objectives to improve parliamentary library service in Canada, to foster communications and cooperation among members concerning matters of mutual interest, to identify issues requiring research and analysis, and to encourage cooperation with related parliamentary officials and organizations.

In Canada the Association provides a common basis to facilitate the identification, location, and exchange of legislative and governmental documents among the member libraries, and to limit the duplication of collections. It also constitutes a network for cross-country surveys on policies, practices, and budgeting and for the sharing of research questions on behalf of our clients. APLIC/ABPAC i s also a source of expertise to its members, through reports of visitations and of operations analyses made for several libraries, and through the preparation of a regular annual survey of members' libraries, which is useful for planning, evaluating, and budgeting. And finally, our Association is a source for identifying contacts and subject experts in other jurisdictions, and a morale booster. We get things done; among our notable achievements has been the role we played, for example, in the development of a legislative library in the Northwest Territories. I have not gone into our Canadian experience in such detail out of pride, but to point out the many kinds of cooperation possible through regional associations.

The other parliamentary library associations I have mentioned have similarly facilitated cooperation among their members according to regional needs, through meetings and conferences, professional visits, staff exchanges and partnerships.

Meetings and Conferences are an important element of our cooperation. The annual conference of the IFLA Parliamentary Libraries Section constitutes the permanent link by which the cooperation of parliamentary and legislative libraries worldwide is continuously maintained. This gathering is generally attended by the heads and senior managers of parliamentary libraries. In the regions associatio ns periodically organize their own meetings, usually conferences every second year, where library heads and senior officers can meet and discuss common issues and share their different experiences.

Professional visits have been another form of cooperation exploited by many of our parliaments and legislatures, not only between library and research services but also with procedural and legislative services as well, because of the particular nature of the services needed by parliaments and their members.

This cooperative format will continue to be popular and should be encouraged even more among the world's parliamentary libraries. Personally, I had the opportunity of benefiting from one of these professional visits recently, in November 1995 when I was the guest of the House of Lords and House of Commons libraries in a very well organized visit to Westminster planned by our colleague, Jennifer Tanfield, which even included my attendance at the Queen's Address to the British Parliament! I feel that such professional visits are probably the most valuable form of cooperation we have, since you can plan in advance and focus on specific issues that you want to address. The feedback received from those who have participated in professional visits between parliamentary libraries is that it has always been very beneficial.

Staff exchanges between parliamentary libraries for specific periods of time have been another popular form of cooperation. These may appear to benefit mostly the individuals involved, but often the links established with other libraries lead to increased cooperation in the answering of reference questions and the provision of materials. One format that seems to work well is the one-for-one exc hange of librarians for a period of six months or more. If the librarians involved can work out the details between themselves, and the libraries agree to support the exchange, each of the libraries concerned can continue to remunerate its own employee. For example, in 1992-93, two reference librarians of the Ontario Legislative Library in Canada spent six months each at the Australian Parliame ntary Library in Canberra on a work exchange program with a librarian from Canberra who spent a year working in Toronto. More recently, this year, our Library of Parliament and the Legislative Library of New South Wales in Australia agreed to an exchange of two of their experienced reference librarians for a six-month period.

In addition to leading to increased sharing of questions and resources, these experiences are worthwhile as a means of sharing ideas on ways to provide and improve services in our parliamentary libraries, and it gives to the staff involved an opportunity to observe first hand how other similar libraries operate and provide services.

What is the impact of technology? There is no doubt that cooperation among parliamentary and legislative libraries will be influenced in the future by the impact of today's new technologies, the explosion of electronic publications, and the easy access to information networking through the news groups and World Wide Web sites. Such electronic forms of cooperation are both mandated and restricted by our financial resources. Brian Land, former Executive Director of the Ontario Legislative Library and one of the best known legislative librarians in Canada, was prophetic when he envisioned budget restraint nine years ago: "One of the conditions that seems certain to occur and recur in the foreseeable future is period of economic recession and financial austerity. Parliamentary libraries, like other government institutions, will continue to feel the effects of periodic downturns in the economy in a number of ways as their financial support is curtailed. There will be greater pressure on library management to find ways to deliver their services while holding the line on budget increases."(9)

With increased access to electronic information, the multiplication of electronic publications, and the budgetary restraints on parliamentary libraries in many countries, the following trends should be observed:

Due to financial constraints, parliamentary and legislative libraries will be inclined to rationalize their services by establishing more partnerships with other nonparliamentary libraries (national, academic and special libraries) in their area, notably in collections development and resource sharing. In fact, the continued trend of increasing costs of traditional collections, and the demand fo r newer media such as audio and video cassettes, CD-ROMS, multimedia products, online databases, and computerized networking will force some parliamentary libraries to actually share their collections with other libraries. The high cost of electronic full-text database access, coupled with high user licence fees, will intensify the need of parliamentary libraries to share their resources with ne arby, non-legislative libraries.

The Internet and the Information Highway have truly established information as a major economic commodity, and will eventually permit the exchange of information and documentation between every parliamentary and legislative library in the world that has access to the Internet.

Already the Internet has created potential new ways of cooperation between libraries in general and parliamentary and legislative libraries in particular. Internet features such as electronic mail, discussion groups and web sites, will impact significantly on interlibrary communication and radically shorten response time between parliamentary libraries for the sharing of information and the maki ng of cooperative decisions.

We are on the threshold of an exciting new era in cooperation between the world's parliamentary libraries - an era in which all our resources will be at each other's disposal, an era in which our professional staff will be able to consult each other's expertise across the barriers of time and distance, an era in which our shared services and our shared vision of democratic and parliamentary infor mation will help forge the bonds of peace. You might call it "the new millennium."


  1. Zhou, Peter, Electronic Resources for Chinese Studies in a Global Context. The Electronic Library, Vol. 14, No. 1, February 1996, p. 27.

  2. Kurzweil, Raymond, The Future of Libraries, Part 2: The End of Books. In Library Journal, Feb. 15, 1992, p. 141.

  3. Ogden, Frank. The Last Book That You'll Ever Read. Toronto, MacFarlane Walter and Ross, 1993, p. XVI.

  4. ----------, Navigating in Cyberspace. Toronto, MacFarlane Walter and Ross, c. 1995, p. 80.

  5. Crawford, Walt and Gorman, Michael. Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness and Reality. Chicago. American Library Association, 1995, p. 174.

  6. Cope, Russell. The Future of Parliaments And their Libraries. Canberra. Parliament House, Department of the Senate, October 1993 (Papers on Parliament No. 20).

  7. Robinson, William. The Parliamentary Library of the Future. IFLA 1995, booklet 1, p. 48.

  8. Finsten, Hugh. Assisting Committees in The Canadian Parliament. IFLA 1995.

  9. Land, Brian. Toward 2008: Some Thoughts About the Future of Parliamentary Libraries. Toronto, Ontario Legislative Library, 1987, 21 pages, p. 18.