Canada’s Library of Parliament: Serving Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Article 10 / 14 , Vol 43 No 3 (Autumn)

Canada’s Library of Parliament: Serving Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

When the pandemic was declared, the Library of Parliament reacted quickly to identify ways to serve clients and contribute to parliamentary democracy, while respecting public health guidelines and safeguarding employees’ health. With the strategic priorities of relevance, agility and a healthy workplace, and a strong foundation when the pandemic started, the Library launched new and enhanced products while continuing to deliver most existing services. In this article, the authors note the institution’s success mainly reflects three factors: committed, adaptable and resilient employees; collaboration with Parliament Hill partners; and a workforce largely equipped to telework.

They explain that the Library continues to evaluate what has worked well and what has not, and where additional investments would help ensure and enhance its ability to serve clients, regardless of their – or the Library staff’s – work location or of public health or other conditions. They conclude that the Library is confident that the innovation, creativity and flexibility engendered by this crisis will be a lasting legacy.

Heather P. Lank and June M. Dewetering

When the pandemic was declared, the Library of Parliament reacted quickly to identify ways to serve clients and contribute to parliamentary democracy, while respecting public health guidelines and safeguarding employees’ health. With the strategic priorities of relevance, agility and a healthy workplace, and a strong foundation when the pandemic started, the Library launched new and enhanced products while continuing to deliver most existing services. In this article, the authors note the institution’s success mainly reflects three factors: committed, adaptable and resilient employees; collaboration with Parliament Hill partners; and a workforce largely equipped to telework. They explain that the Library continues to evaluate what has worked well and what has not, and where additional investments would help ensure and enhance its ability to serve clients, regardless of their – or the Library staff’s – work location or of public health or other conditions. They conclude that the Library is confident that the innovation, creativity and flexibility engendered by this crisis will be a lasting legacy.

When the novel coronavirus – or COVID-19 – pandemic was declared in Canada in mid-March 2020, the Library of Parliament was one of many employers that reacted quickly to determine ways to achieve twin goals concurrently: continue to provide clients with excellent products and services in a way that would meet emerging and changing public health guidelines, and safeguard employees’ health.

Within the context of its three strategic priorities of relevance, agility and a healthy workplace, the Library’s immediate focus was to identify the elements of its mandate that could be fulfilled with or without modification and those that had to be suspended temporarily. It was clear that service delivery would have to occur in a way that would help to protect employees and other members of the parliamentary community from the virus.

The Library’s Mission

The Library’s mission is to contribute to Canadian parliamentary democracy by creating, managing and delivering authoritative, reliable and relevant information and knowledge for Parliament. In achieving our goals, we are guided by three foundational values: impartiality, trust and excellence.

Through the Library, parliamentarians and their staff can access customized research, curated information, a specialized collection of electronic and print resources, five branch libraries and a range of learning opportunities. As well, our public information services and public outreach efforts provide Canadians and others around the world with relevant information about Parliament. In making these products and services available to parliamentary clients and the public, necessary – but less visible – support is provided in such areas as information technology, finance and human resources, among others. Every Library employee is part of the team that helps us to meet our objectives.

The Library takes pride in having successfully delivered products and services, despite the challenges of the pandemic. This success mainly reflects three factors: the efforts of committed, adaptable and resilient employees; collaboration with our Senate and House of Commons partners to meet the needs of parliamentarians; and a workforce that largely already had, or was quickly provided with, the equipment and other tools needed to work remotely.

Within days of the Library deciding to adopt teleworking for all employees able to do so, we identified the products and services that could continue to be provided seamlessly, and those that could be modified to meet the needs of parliamentarians and their staff, as well as the public. Fortunately, only a few of our services had to be temporarily suspended.

Seamless Delivery and New Products

Each year, the Library’s analysts, research assistants and research librarians provide high-quality, evidence-based and objective research, analysis and information as they complete thousands of requests made by the Speakers of the Senate and House of Commons, other parliamentarians and their staff, and parliamentary committees and associations.

Throughout the pandemic, parliamentarians have relied on our research and information professionals to provide them with what they need to engage in parliamentary debates, participate in the work of committees, undertake a range of parliamentary diplomacy activities, and help serve their constituents.

We were extremely fortunate that a significant proportion of our employees providing such services already had mobile computers and other technologies before the pandemic started. The Library’s information technology team worked quickly to provide them with external keyboards, mice and monitors, and the human resources team offered guidance about setting up a home workspace that is safe, secure and ergonomically sound. With these tools and other supports, a reliable parliamentary network, and assistance provided by both the Library’s and the House of Commons’ information technology teams, these employees were rapidly able to transition to telework, and to provide seamless services to their clients, whether parliamentarians and their staff or others.

In addition to continuing to provide customized responses to individual requests during the pandemic, the Library’s analysts have been supporting – usually from their homes – the Senate and House committees meeting virtually or in person. As well, they have been assisting members of many of Parliament’s thirteen recognized parliamentary associations, which – throughout the pandemic – have been holding webinars, reviewing draft reports and undertaking other activities.

With the pandemic spreading across Canada and the world, the Library leveraged its subject-matter expertise to produce a series of timely COVID-19–related HillNotes. These publications are designed to provide parliamentarians and Canadians with succinct, accurate and non-partisan analyses relating to the virus and the pandemic from health, economic, social, environmental, international and other perspectives. More than 30 HillNotes have been published on the Library’s blog, and they are updated, as required, to ensure ongoing accuracy and relevance. HillNotes on additional COVID-19–related topics are planned for the coming months. In addition, a subject-matter guide provides parliamentarians with a curated list of COVID-19–related links, and it too is updated regularly.

While creating new products during the pandemic, the Library has also released many previously planned research publications, as well as legislative summaries of key bills being considered by Parliament. Moreover, we have continued to be a reliable source of digital and print information of all types, providing access to digitized content, research databases, subject guides, the catalogue, and our media collection of audio, video and transcripts of media. In fact, the frequency of certain of our media monitoring services was increased for several months to help keep parliamentarians informed about the most important news of the day.

With the onset of the pandemic, the Library prioritized delivery of e-resources, including e-books, when possible. This transition from print to electronic options, which began well before the pandemic, is likely to continue into the future. Our e-platforms currently provide e-books and access to publications by university presses and think tanks. These include an ever-growing number of titles on a range of topics, including business, politics and history, as well as biographies and autobiographies.

Online information about how Parliament works and related educational resources have continued to be accessible at learn.parl.ca, although the distribution of print publications ordered on this site has been temporarily suspended. As always, the Parliament of Canada Facebook and YouTube accounts provide the public with information and resources concerning Parliament, including high-definition video tours of the Senate of Canada Building and the West Block. Online access to these spaces is particularly important at a time when physical access by the general public is not possible.

One of the most exciting initiatives designed to provide insights into Parliament was very successfully launched during the pandemic: “Parliament: The Virtual Experience.” A co-production with the National Film Board of Canada, this award-winning initiative provides an innovative way for Canadians – and, indeed, others around the world – to experience, through magic realism, Parliament’s iconic Centre Block and parliamentary activities within its walls. It is available either in full virtual reality using Steam or in a 360° video on such platforms as Oculus, YouTube and Facebook. With millions of Canadians staying at home, it is perhaps not surprising that the reach of the virtual experience exceeded expectations, with more than 20,000 views of the 360° video in the first six weeks alone. The 2-D online experience was also very well received, with more than 12,000 views in the same time period. The Library is thrilled to be able to offer new ways for Canadians to connect to Parliament, including during this difficult time.

Modifications to Continue to Meet Needs

Despite the closure of the Library’s five branches in mid-March, parliamentarians and their staff have continued to be served through other means, without the benefit of in-person, on-site support. For example, with access to the Library’s print collection curtailed, efforts have been directed to ensuring that parliamentarians’ needs for print resources are met as they engage in parliamentary debates and committee hearings. Where e-resources are not available or copyright prohibits digitization, parliamentarians and their staff have had print copies of required documents delivered to them. The Library’s online request system that parliamentarians and their staff use to make requests has been available throughout the pandemic.

We have also found ways to continue to respond to information requests about Parliament from the public. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Library’s reference librarians and technicians could not access the call centre used by parliamentary clients and the public Infoline. The Library’s information technology team and those responsible for telecommunications in the House of Commons worked together on a temporary solution to enable the Library to receive these calls. Fortunately, while telephone access was being re-established during the pandemic’s early stages, online access to our information services was uninterrupted.

The Library Ambassador program has also adapted to the telework context. The program provides briefings to Senators and Members of the House of Commons, and to their staff, about the Library’s products and services. In mid-March, the program transitioned to briefings being delivered solely through Skype or MS Teams. While ambassadors look forward to resuming face-to-face briefings when public health conditions permit, they have welcomed the opportunity to connect with parliamentarians and their staff remotely to discuss how we can provide services on an ongoing basis.

Similarly, we have been able to modify our delivery of the Library Seminar program and thereby continue providing learning opportunities to the parliamentary community. Since the beginning of the pandemic, seminars have been held using MS Teams. They have been well received, with attendance meeting or exceeding normal on-site levels. Additional seminars are being planned on relevant public policy, legislative and other issues.

Temporary Suspensions

Thankfully, the pandemic has resulted in only a very limited number of our services being unavailable. Access to our print collections has been suspended, except for Library staff fulfilling emergency requests while following public health protocols. Closure of the Library’s branches has had implications for speaking with our librarians in person and for accessing themed exhibits, the media walls and such amenities as client workstations. With inter-library loans suspended, most requests that would normally have given rise to such a loan have been satisfied through electronic alternatives or the purchase of the needed item.

The Library’s Preservation Lab was also closed in mid-March. For several months, it was unable to fulfill its three main roles: binding parliamentary and other government publications, engaging in preventive preservation of the Library’s collections, and conserving materials. Recognizing that the machinery, equipment and chemicals used for these activities do not lend themselves to teleworking, facilitating the safe return of the Library’s preservation team to the workplace has been one of many organizational priorities.

As well, although it is possible to purchase the Parliamentary Boutique’s products by phone, email or online, in-person browsing has been unavailable since mid-March. Efforts are underway to ensure that the entire range of products will be available for online purchase in the coming months.

Furthermore, guided tours of the Senate of Canada Building and the West Block, in which the House of Commons is temporarily located, have been suspended until further notice. However, online resources provide pictures, videos and information about these and other buildings within the parliamentary precinct, as well as numerous educational resources about Canada’s parliamentary system and the legislative process. The Library looks forward to welcoming visitors for parliamentary tours when conditions permit.

Lessons Learned and the Return to Work

Like other workplaces throughout Canada and the world, the Library has learned many lessons since the start of the pandemic. In our case, one of the most important is the tremendous value of having an agile organization with resilient and committed employees. Since March, the Library’s employees have been remarkable in many ways, including in their embracing of new products, methods and technologies – Enhanced Skype for Business, MS Teams and Zoom, among others – to serve their clients, and in their desire to try innovative ways to remain in contact with their colleagues and to manage teams remotely. Communiqués and group emails – whether from the Parliamentary Librarian or other leaders in the organization – continue to be instrumental in supporting employees, providing them with needed information and contributing to their ongoing connection to the Library community.

We have also learned that, when faced with unexpected challenges, the Library – as an institution – is creative and adaptable. Service is almost always possible, even though it may be provided in a different way.

We have a variety of efforts underway to ensure that, if the same or a similar situation occurs in the future, we will be able to provide yet more services online. For example, we are exploring enhanced access to the Library’s products, services and collections, improved educational tools, “chat reference,” information and videoconference orientation sessions for parliamentarians and their staff, and a “virtual library” with mini-exhibits that will supplement our current services. Our enhancements will allow us to serve our clients better, regardless of their work location or of public health or other conditions.

Finally, concerning a return to the workplace, an important consideration is the recent applicability of the Canada Labour Code’s occupational health and safety provisions to the Library. Strict requirements must be met concerning workplace hazards, of which COVID-19 is one. The Library is assessing risks and implementing measures designed to ensure workplace health and safety. As well, the advice provided by public health authorities and the approach of our Parliament Hill partners and of the federal public service are important in this regard. Undoubtedly, these considerations will be paramount as the Library resumes suspended services, employees return to their workplace, and we continue to meet the needs of parliamentarians and other clients.

Conclusion

In the midst of a pandemic, it is very difficult – if not impossible – to know what the world will look like when the public health crisis has passed. But one thing is certain: the Library of Parliament will be permanently changed. We were very fortunate to have had a strong foundation when the crisis began, with well-equipped and engaged employees dedicated to serving Parliament. We shifted rapidly from on-site service delivery to telework and providing service from a distance. We created new products to meet changing needs. We worked collaboratively within the Library and with our Parliament Hill partners who – likewise – are focused on meeting the needs of Senators and Members of the House of Commons.

The adaptations to the Library’s products, services and modes of delivery that were precipitated by COVID-19 are aligned with our commitment to relevance, agility and a healthy workplace, and we are a stronger institution because of the changes we have made. We continue to reflect on what has worked well and what has not, and where we need to make additional efforts and investments. While we welcome a return to offering on-site services, having enhanced online and telework capacity will allow us to improve our service to parliamentarians, their staff and the public, and to be well prepared for future challenges. The pandemic has led to innovation, and we have every confidence that the creativity and flexibility engendered by this crisis will be a lasting legacy.