Legislative and Parliamentary Libraries in Canada: Two Hundred Years of Service, Support and Information
Legislative and parliamentary libraries have come a long way from their humble (and sometimes informal) beginnings. In this article, the authors trace their history, outline their roles and functions, discuss some challenges they face, and look to future development. While each legislative and parliamentary library is unique, reflecting local needs and histories, they also share common responsibilities to parliamentarians and legislative staff as they do the work of parliamentary democracy. The authors note how the founding of the Association of Parliamentary Libraries in Canada/L’Association des bibliothécaires parlementaires du Canada (APLIC/ABPAC) has permitted the country’s parliamentary libraries to work together to identify and share best practices. They conclude by suggesting that these libraries will continue to monitor trends, evolve and adapt to new technology as they look to the future.
Vicki Whitmell and Sarah Goodyear
Background and History
The early growth of legislative and parliamentary libraries in Canada from the late 1700s to the early 1900s mirrors the development of legislative libraries in other western-style democracies. Designed to support and inform Members as they make policy, debate, pass legislation, oversee the government, and serve their constituents; these libraries continue to provide specialized and innovative research and reference service and to acquire and curate extensive and varied print and electronic collections. All are focused on meeting the day-to-day and long-term information needs of parliamentarians.
The Assemblée Nationale in France created the first parliamentary library in 1796. Four years later the formidable Library of Congress was created to serve the US Congress. Today in Canada all provinces and territories (except Yukon) have a legislative library and the federal parliament has the Library of Parliament. As our timeline shows, each library’s individual history parallels the political maturation of their jurisdiction and their entry into Confederation.
It seems fitting that the first legislative library in Canada was in Prince Edward Island, the location of the founding of Confederation. The library originated with the establishment of the Legislature in 1773, although it did not have a permanent home until it moved into the second floor of the Colonial Building (now known as Province House) in Charlottetown in 1847. New Brunswick established its library in 1841, although it had been functioning informally since the province was formed in 1784. The Nova Scotia Legislative Library began in 1862, although the House had purchased statutes and journals from other jurisdictions as early as 1758. The Newfoundland and Labrador Legislative Library traces its origins back to 1835. It was dismantled from 1933 to 1949 during the time of the Commission of Newfoundland. Following Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation in 1949 the library was re-assembled.
Book collections first emerged in the House of Assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada in the 1790s. Upper Canada formally began to fund its library in 1816 and its first librarian was hired in 1827. In Lower Canada a resolution was passed in the House of Assembly in 1802 to create a library, and the first librarian was hired in 1829. These two libraries operated separately until the Canadas united to form the Province of Canada in 1841. At that time, the two collections were purchased from the legislatures by the new government. The newly created library accompanied the Legislature of the Province of Canada as it travelled for more than a decade between Kingston and Montreal, and then between Toronto and Quebec, before finding its permanent home in Ottawa as the Library of Parliament in 1867.
Saskatchewan’s legislative library originated in 1876 as the North-West Government Library, a working collection that moved with the territorial administration. After 1905 and the establishment of the Provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, the library became the Saskatchewan Legislative Library. Alberta was granted $6,113.25 in lieu to establish a new library for the province.
Although money was voted for a library in 1858 in British Columbia, its beginnings are generally traced to a second vote in 1863, as it is not clear if the money given in 1858 was spent. The first permanent librarian was appointed in 1863.
Manitoba recognizes November 5, 1870 as the date that its legislative library was established, although that date reflects only the transfer of library materials from the House of the Lieutenant-Governor to government offices. The transfer was meant to create a provincial library and during the first session of the first legislature, the Legislative Council appointed a committee to consider a library. The first mention of a report to the Legislature about the library dates to 1875.
In 1973, the Executive of the Northwest Territories approved the establishment of a government library which was subsequently transferred to the Legislative Assembly in 1992. Canada’s newest legislative library is at the Nunavut Legislative Assembly. Although planning began before the territory was established, the library opened in 1999.
Legislative libraries provide access to ‘all sides/perspectives’ of issues, debates and policy. Through their collections and services they gather reliable information from verifiable and accurate sources, ensuring that the information they provide as a whole is unbiased, objective and non-partisan.
Each legislative and parliamentary library is unique, reflecting local needs and histories. Services and collections respond to the specific issues and policy areas that are under the jurisdiction of their government. They tailor their work in part by capturing, indexing and making available the published output of the legislature or parliament and government documents published by ministries and the agencies and boards and commissions of the province or territory. Their subject matter experts, whether librarians or research analysts, provide information and reviews, briefings, media and press packages, reports, background, and analysis in a variety of formats and in a broad range of subjects. Confidentiality, non-partisanship, timeliness and accuracy are foundational principles of service.
Some legislative libraries exist solely to serve parliamentarians; others also have a mandate to serve the public. However, even if a library is not open to the public to visit and use, many legislative libraries make their catalogues or electronic collections widely available online.
The Library of Parliament and the Assemblies of Ontario and Quebec all have specialized research departments that provide in-depth research and comparative studies to individual Members. They also support legislative committees directly with analysis and report writing services.
With modern Open Government and Open Parliament initiatives promoting increased transparency of government and legislative information and data, legislative libraries often play a role in ensuring that their legislature’s publishing, and information output and the information that the Assembly has created, collected, or saved is made available in digital formats that can be found easily.
All types of libraries benefit their users by cooperating and sharing with each other. Legislative libraries are no exception. From the early days, Canada’s legislative libraries worked closely together. In 1975 the Association of Parliamentary Libraries in Canada/L’Association des bibliothécaires parlementaires du Canada (APLIC/ABPAC) was officially chartered. Early work of the new association included formalizing the exchange of official publications between the provinces and establishing depository systems for provincial government publications. Both initiatives helped to preserve these valuable materials for the long term.
APLIC/ABPAC’s annual conferences allow the libraries to catch up on activities and projects, hear of new developments and approaches to serving Members, discuss challenges, consider changes to the publishing and technology worlds and their possible impact on and utility for library services and products, and to learn from one other.
The libraries also exchange information through their listservs. These forums allow each library to quickly gather responses to legislative and policy questions that cross Canadian jurisdictions. This helps everyone to share the workload and to provide accurate information to Members more quickly and efficiently.
APLIC/ABPAC members also complete a survey each year on their services, staffing and resources. This helps the group as a whole to identify trends and best practices, and allows individual libraries to compare what they offer with those offering similar services to legislatures across the country.
One of the Association’s most important recent initiatives has been the development and maintenance of the publicly-available GALLOP Portal (Government and Legislative Libraries Online Publications Portal: ), a full-text searchable database of the legislative and government publications held by Canadian legislative libraries. The Portal has resulted in efficiencies, savings, and increased availability of legislative and government information. It has achieved its original goals to:
support parliamentarians by locating and providing the information resources they require to make informed decisions;
reduce duplication among legislative, academic and public libraries in collection activities and contribute to national collection efforts;
facilitate pan-jurisdictional research.
The Portal continues to evolve with technology and as the needs of legislative libraries and legislators change.
Consultation and cooperation among legislative libraries to improve services to parliamentarians extends beyond Canada’s borders. Members of APLIC/ABPAC play a contributing role in the International Federation of Library Association’s (IFLA) Section on Library and Research Services for Parliaments. Mature parliaments like those in Canada have a responsibility to assist developing parliaments, and the IFLA section provides guidance and practical solutions for parliaments in the early stages of developing their libraries and/or research services.
Meeting the needs of busy parliamentarians and legislative staff can be challenging. Libraries recognize that Members often suffer from information overload so they look for ways to provide the right information, at the right time, in the right format. This requires a type of partnership with their Members, who often need assistance to understand what exactly it is that they need. In turn, legislative libraries need a better understanding of how Members use the information they receive and how that might change day-to-day and over time.
Costs continue to rise for reliable and accurate newspapers, publications, books and databases, so legislative libraries must continually look for ways to work with each other and with other libraries to share resources and reduce costs. Many Canadian legislative libraries are part of consortial buying groups that help to reduce the cost of licences and subscriptions.
Newly elected Members may not know where to turn for information on the wide variety of subjects with which they must quickly become familiar. Libraries are one of the few services offered by legislatures that Members can choose whether or not to use. Helping Members to understand that the services they receive from a legislative library are more specialized and much more extensive than from a public or an academic library may take some time. Promoting library services is done through one-on-one visits, training sessions and general marketing campaigns.
It is often difficult to measure the impact of what legislative libraries do and how their information or products are used by Members. With so many available avenues for information, legislative libraries must focus on what they do best and what is needed the most. Helping Members and their staff to know how to use the library, its resources and staff effectively is an important role that libraries play, especially in a world where unfiltered information cannot always be relied upon.
Despite ongoing challenges, Canada’s legislative libraries have demonstrated their value to individual Members and parliaments over the last two hundred years. This is reflected in how often they are used by all Members, whether they be government or opposition. It is shown in the early and ongoing support and commitment that Members have given and continue to give to their libraries, and it is shown in the ways that libraries are involved in how information is used, preserved and disseminated in parliaments.
Canada’s legislative and parliamentary libraries will continue to evolve to meet Members’ changing needs and to embrace advancements in technology and to provide support to parliamentarians as they serve their constituents, make informed decisions, and contribute overall to policy, law making and oversight.
1 For the purposes of this article ‘legislative library’ refers to any of the libraries serving a legislative assembly at the provincial or territorial level or Parliament in Ottawa.