Parliamentarians Discuss Parliamentary Libraries

Article 7 / 15 , Vol 43 No 1 (Spring)

Parliamentarians Discuss Parliamentary Libraries

As one of the principal clients of Parliamentary Libraries, many parliamentarians see the inherent value in these institutions – even if their own jurisdiction doesn’t have one. In this modified roundtable discussion, the Canadian Parliamentary Review has compiled interviews with four parliamentarians discussing how and why they use their Parliamentary Library, or what they do when they don’t have access to one.

Participants: Shane Getson, MLA, Liz Hanson, MLA, Nathan Neudorf, MLA and Kevin O’Reilly, MLA

CPR: How soon after becoming an MLA did you become acquainted with/start using the Legislative Library? If your jurisdiction doesn’t have one, what did you do to meet your research needs?

Nathan Neudorf: I was elected a little over a year ago and we were in session almost immediately after the election. I took a tour of the Legislative Library right away. It was a huge source of information for a completely new job task for me: speaking in the Legislature. Whether it was related to a bill, or a member’s statement, or my maiden speech, using the archives was an immediate help to understand how previous MLAs in my constituency had done things. Within a week or two I was already using those resources and files.

Shane Getson: I became familiarized on the first day. It was part of the tour and orientation. I love libraries, and the one that we have at our disposal is amazing. The service that the Library has of pulling relevant articles from local Alberta papers and breaking them down by region is an immense help.

Kevin O’Reilly: I had used the Legislative Library before I was a Member as it had several polar and circumpolar journals of personal interest. I used the Library within the first six months of my start as an MLA for both those duties and my personal interest. The Library is very helpful in terms of locating documents and what was previously said in Hansard on any issue. For my personal research and interest, they were able to track down a 1920s era mining statute for Newfoundland. My first constituency assistant was also well-versed in the Library and made use of its services behind the scenes.

Liz Hanson: We don’t have a Parliamentary Library in Yukon. In small jurisdictions like Yukon we have the same gamut of issues that any parliamentarians have to deal with, but we have few or no resources. The staff resources that are dedicated to parties in a small jurisdiction are miniscule. You have one staff member, or maybe two. MLAs often end up doing all the research on their own. It’s interesting, but it does not lend itself well to any sort of continuity of source or documentation. That’s one of the concerns I have. On procedural matters that arise relating to conduct within the Assembly itself, we certainly rely on the good work of the clerks. But other than that, we reinvent the wheel a lot and you waste a lot of time. I’m not sure that it really contributes to a very healthy debate if you don’t have information about precedents or things done prior. Nothing is really new under the sun.

CPR: How easy was it to get/become familiar with how to use your library? Were there individual/group training sessions? Did you do independent work to familiarize yourself?

SG: Honestly I have only scratched the surface on the services that are available. Orientation covered the basics, but the staff at the Library is very helpful.

NN: I come from a construction background, so the orientation was very helpful. The Library could be a bit intimidating based on its size, the volume of resources, and the type of material it holds, but the staff make it incredibly accessible. I rely on the staff a lot to help me narrow down my focus quickly rather than sifting through all the research on my own. The value of what was there really jumped out at me. Why reinvent the wheel when someone has gone before?

KO: During my first term orientation as an MLA in 2015, there was a general introduction to the Library staff and encouragement to visit the facility which is inside the building envelope. I pushed for and was successful in having a more substantive presentation by the Library staff as part of the orientation in 2019.

CPR: What do you use the Library/research services for most often? Have your needs changed over the time you’ve been in office?

NN: The primary way I’ve used it has been to gauge the speaking style of Members who have gone before me. But it has slowly started to become more topical in terms of content. I now look at whether an issue has been discussed before, and how it’s been discussed in a local, provincial or sometimes national context and in historical perspective.

KO: I have used the Library and research staff for preparation of background materials for Member’s Statements and Oral Questions, briefing notes to help understand how other jurisdictions deal with issues or matters, and to assist with constituency concerns and responses. I don’t think my needs have changed over time, although I have a better understanding of what services and assistance can be provided. I still don’t know everything they can do, but it is perhaps even more important that constituency assistants receive orientation and training.

SG: Currently I use it for news events from papers and magazines, but going forward I will focus more on treaties, land agreements, environmental studies, and wildlife assessments in regards to transportation corridors.

LH: I would love to use it as a repository for past debates. Now, if I wanted to access Hansard from 30 or 40 years ago, it would be difficult to do. We’re getting better and better at having access to digitized material, but it’s not all there yet. And there are issues around committees and documentation related to committee activities – without access to it you’re trotting on some of the same ground.

CPR: Do you or your staff do research using other sources? If so, which ones?

NN: Most of my staff are millennials or younger, so of course, as you’d expect, they are quick to go to Google. But the nature of our work means that a lot of public information is not as specific as what we’d want for parliamentary discussion or debate. We do end up going to the Library fairly often for that archived and historical perspective.

KO: A lot of my research is done by my constituency assistant, who will more than often turn to the Library. The turn-around time is often quicker and more comprehensive than trying to go through Ministers’ offices, which is how our consensus government approach is supposed to work. Library and research staff often have long corporate and institutional memories about how issues were handled in the past, which can be very helpful

LH: I’ve been an MLA since 2010. I’ve been through three elections. When we were Official Opposition we had a few more staff resources and would rely on them to do more of the research and outreach. It’s not just about researching, but also corroborating and collaborating with the experts on the subject matter, wherever they are. You might be able to identify research, but you need to follow up with them. That becomes a problem with little or no staff. We rely a lot on local people who have an interest in certain subject matter. They can sometimes put us in touch with people across the country who are subject experts. It really comes down to the individual MLA and the extent of the staffing. If you’re relying on one person to run an office, it can be challenging to add research on top of that.

CPR: Based on what you know about your colleagues, do different MLAs use the Library differently? Does it depend on your role/constituency, legislative interests?

NN: I haven’t specifically asked my colleagues about their Library use; based on the diversity of representation I’m sure there are different habits and expertise on how to approach an issue. I think some would rely more heavily on their staff. If I had to guess, I would imagine MLAs who have been here longer would likely use the Library more often based on what it holds. There is a lot of trust and responsibility put onto staff for accessing the right kind of information for a debate at hand. I would suspect the longer that staff have been here, the more likely they would be to go to that institution to seek it out.

KO: I hear often that many members do not use the Library or research. It seems to depend on their individual level of education, what riding they represent, and if they are a Regular Member; Cabinet reportedly rarely ever uses them.

CPR: As more and more library resources become digital, do you worry about your ability to find what you need, or are you excited that you can do more searches on your own?

SG: Yes and no. I do not often have the best results when it comes to electronics. The insight of having real people who may be able to point me in the right direction, may know of alternate resources, or may have found similar information in the past is invaluable.

NN: I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s great if something’s online because you can find it faster, but my concern is how search engines prioritize results.

KO: I have good internet skills so am not worried about being able to find or use digital resources, but I am concerned that some of these services will not be offered for free or become monopolized. Training and promotion of what may also be available through the Library is also very important and often not well understood.

LH: There’s so much junk on the Internet. If you’re not a subject matter expert it’s a challenge to sift through it. You can hear statements being made in the Legislative Assembly and think to yourself, ‘Oh gosh, they did not push past the next level to find out if that was true or valid or what the source was on certain statements being made.’ It’s also a rabbit hole. You can keep on going down and down and down; you need to realize you don’t have the time for that. When you’re constrained by time, your quality of research is not that good.

CPR: Liz, are you aware of why Yukon is the only jurisdiction in Canada without a Legislative Library?

LH: There’s a real resistance to invest, in my observation. I’ve spent 30 years in civil service and management. I came into government thinking, ‘Okay, we have a system in place.’ But what I find is that it’s only been since 2003 that the territory had the gamut of province-like responsibilities, and for the longest time I don’t think MLAs were really viewed as having a full-time job. The reality is slowly sinking in that we are accountable as members of the Assembly for the stewardship of the territory and we haven’t built the infrastructure up. The people in power seem to be resistant to any idea that we’re spending money on the government, but we’re really spending on the integrity of the Legislative Assembly and how business is conducted. It’s different when you start from scratch with a territory like Nunavut that sprang out of the land claims agreement. It was created as a whole government. The Northwest Territories has a different system entirely. We have a party-system here, and there’s a resistance to spending. People will ask why we need another clerk, or why we need a library, but we do. It’s been very challenging to get people to understand that our standing committees should be meeting between sessions.

CPR: Are there any unique sources or services that are provided by your Legislative Library that have become critical/irreplaceable to your work/research?

NN: The ones I appreciate the most are the archiving of speeches given in the Assembly. If there’s an individual who may be a role model for me as an MLA, I love to hear how they’ve done it and see how they’ve spoken about topics. No other place would have that kind of specific history of how that person brought in legislation. That unique history is what I’m most after. I also don’t know of many other places that would store as many sources, and print media specifically, providing political analysis. Those two would be the most important things I look to in the Legislative Library that I wouldn’t know where to find outside of the Legislative Library.

KO: It’s not just the sources and services, but the staff themselves; especially ones who have long public service track records, often longer than MLAs and senior managers. I worry about succession planning and how that corporate and institutional memory is preserved and passed along. There is also a longer-term project to digitize and make searchable, Hansard and other related records of our Assembly back to the 1920s. Much of this is not available anywhere else and it would prove to be a very valuable historical record about Canada’s north and public policy.

CPR: What, if anything would you like to change about your library? What do you appreciate the most about it?

KO: More space generally and more useable and interactive space specifically would be very helpful. The Legislative Library has had to absorb the holdings from other departmental libraries and, more recently, our Court Library. Only a fraction of the materials and documentary holdings of the Legislative Library are easily accessable, despite moving towards more digitized information. We have very dedicated and helpful staff who have never failed to help; even if they don’t have the information directly, they will point us in the right direction.

NN: I would like the general public to be more aware of it and what it holds. I know people are more likely to be drawn to their local library and I understand that, but the use of this resource is invaluable to me. As a society we tend to be more interested in the flash and ease of search with Google, but, as institutions, libraries are so important.

SG: I would not change a thing, again, I may have an update to this over the next several years as I use it more. I appreciate the feel of the Library, the staff, and the history. It is an amazing resource!

CPR: Is there a push to get a Legislative Library in Yukon based on your impression, or is it a case of ‘we don’t have one, do we really need one?’

LH: I think it’s the latter without understanding the implications of it. It’s fine if you’re the government in power and you have access to every resource you want, but you lose sight of the fact that the minority, or the opposition should also have an equitable level of resources to perform their function. I was part of the Official Opposition, so I know they don’t have a continuity of resources either. The brain trust just doesn’t continue, but we do see some continuity among people whose job is to be in the Legislative \Assembly offices.

CPR: Are there other topics I’ve missed about your library/research work that you’d like to mention?

KO: It is important for Legislative Libraries to be linked together as often questions arise about best practices or how other jurisdictions deal with issues. It will become increasingly important to digitize and make collections more accessible, especially with direct access on-line, but at a time when leaders and governments want to spend less on information management. Part of the work of Legislative Libraries should also be promoting their services to the general public so there is a greater understanding of their function and need for support.

LH: I would like to see us establishing one (laughs). To me that would be a good starting place. I’ve modified my expectations about the Legislative Assembly and what its folks can do over the last 10 years. I’m trying to be more realistic in my expectations that we’re a small territory and our Assembly is building to become an effective representative for the people. We’ve made some good progress in the last few years. I’m not a very patient person, but I have seen it. It’s going to take some time and also take some suggestions from colleagues across the country about how to get people to understand the importance of having that central, independent source to provide quality research; without having whatever partisan colour/slant that looks for the zinger. We need to concentrate on the facts that parliamentarians can distill in debate. We need to get an understanding that this is a legitimate investment on behalf of the citizens in the interest of having an informed debate. And, I’d like to hear from colleagues about how to ensure adequate resources are provided to it.